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July 1, 2021

I spent much of today, marked “Canada Day” on my digital calendar, in deep thought. While I’m proud to be a Canadian, and very thankful to call this country home, what I have learned over past years about our history has given me pause. Facts that have been revealed, little by little, were put under glaring spotlights recently, when some of the dear, innocent children, buried at forced confinement institutions, were at last found.

This afternoon I finished my second reading of Invisible North: The Search for Answers on a Troubled Reserve by Alexandra Shimo. Shimo, a Toronto-based journalist, made a plan to spend several months living on the Kashechewan reserve to research a water problem. What resulted is part memoir, part history, and she gives first-hand insight about life on that reservation.

I highlighted as I read, and I’d like to share pieces of her book with you. Although long, what follows are just a few words that taught, shocked, and broke my heart. Putting myself in place of the people who must live with these injustices, I wonder what kind of person I would be now if I’d experienced a fraction of what so many live with daily.

” . . . from the nineteenth century onwards, First Nations were confined to poverty in six ways. They were moved away from mineral wealth. They were displaced from natural resources including forest, lakes, and rivers. They had their land stolen through “theft” and “fraud”. They were stopped from establishing their own industries on traditional land. They were obstructed from opening other businesses. They were excluded from jobs off-reserve through racism.

“If you take away a community’s ability to generate resources, and then remove an individual’s ability tyo make money, then . . . you end up with the current situation of First Nations: racialized poverty. . . . Ninety-two of Canada’s one hundred poorest communities are Aboriginal, according to Statistics Canada.”

” … Until 1985, the First Nation leadership didn’t have much control about who could come and go on a reserve. Only the Ministry, or their representatives, the Indian Agents, decided who was welcome to visit or live in the town. And only they chose who must be removed from the community, whether it was for breaking the laws of the Indian Act, or simply disagreeing with their decisions.”

“At first glance, the First Nations government seems to have too much power. But there’s also a strange shadow side to the legislation, which limits responsibility: every time the chief does anything, any time he wants to spend money, he must clear it with the Ministry. Under sections 35[6] and 53.1 of the Indian Act, reserves are Crown land. All resources on the reserve belong to the state. There may be a public language of Native sovereignty, a nod to political correctness, but the reality is the Ministry manages most reserves, at least indirectly, as they see fit.

To get anything done, Chief Solomon (Kash) must file an application with the Ministry — a development grant or contribution agreement — and wait. The problem with this process is that Chief Solomon has also almost zero information on how the department makes its decisions. He’s not alone. None of the chiefs interviewed . . . knew the process for awarding funding, why some projects are considered worthy and others are not. . . . The reserves are forced to play the lottery where the prizes are the basics of survival, such as drinking water or affordable food.”

” . . . major changes to the Indian Act in 1985. Reserves like Kashechewan were now responsible for their own economic development. With the changes, the leadership met and began brainstorming about way to end the poverty. After two months, they came up with a plan to create the first Native-led employment program to tackle the then 90 percent unemployment rate: an environmentally friendly fishery in the area.

“The Albany River is prized for its fresh, clean water, and strong currents, which create perfect conditions for many northern species including walleye, pike, and trout. the band council gathered information about the environment, fish handling, breeding, growth rates, and profit margins. They compiled proposal and budget and sent it to the INAC (Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada)

“The pilot project would cost an estimated six thousand dollars. We don’t know the reason why Ottawa thought it was a bad idea, since the reserve sent them a detailed operating plan and budget, but never heard back, and today, they have no record of such an application. Three months later, they resubmitted the material Same thing. No response.

Without the official explanation to understand why they had been turned down, the band council came up with possible explanations . . . Perhaps something about their proposal did not accord with the many pages of laws and procedure that must be satisfied for any development proposal to be approved by INAC. Perhaps the Ministry did not want a fishery. Or maybe, it was the sums of money involved or that the fishery would contravene the anti-trade sections of the Indian Act, which banned Aboriginals from doing business with each other unless the transaction was approved by the Ministry, laws that were only revoked in December 2014.

The local leadership didn’t have any answers but in 1986, they tried again. They would build salt evaporation ponds on the southern James Bay coast. They would start small . . . the pilot would cost two thousand dollars. The Ministry didn’t reply. so they wrote again. This time they were given a reason for the rejection. Ottawa said that any salt produced should be tested by Health and Safety for it to be saleable, and they did not have the resources to set this up.

“Unfazed, the following year, another scheme. An ask for five thousand dollars to start a tree nursery. Ottawa said no. There weren’t sufficient funds in the budget for employment creation. And so it has continued over the years, the reserve creating ever more ingenious employment schemes, and the Ministry finding ever more creative ways to say no.”

“In 1950, the relocation of the Ouje-Bougoumou Crees in northern Quebec would provide the template for the next four decades. When gold was found on their land, they were removed from their homes and relocated to a swampy point on a lake. It wasn’t just that living on a marsh meant that their homes became mouldy, but that the Canadian government had not located them sufficiently far from the mining tailings ponds. Metal including chromium, cadmium, arsenic, zinc, and cyanide began to build in nearby Lake Chibougamau.  . . . The First Nation decided to move away from the pollution, choosing a dry spot two kilometres away. The Ministry said their new location was illegal. The First Nation ignored them and relocated anyway. The Ministry labelled them “squatters”, and forcibly relocated them to a nearby campsite with one-room shacks with plastic sheets for roofs.

Most of the relocations that would take place over the next two decades would have the same plot points, narrative arc, and final act. Development required moving First Nations out of the way.”

“At the start of the twentieth century, the Crees of Kashechewan trapped over 640 square kilometres (400 sqare miles) over the James Bay area. But in 1905, with the signing of Treaty Nine, they were moved to an area measuring 1.5 kilometres by 0.5 kilometres, the size of the reserve, with 230 kilometres (144 square miles) to be shared among two communities, For Albany and Kashechewan, for hunting.

“Treaty Nine records the surrender of 144,840 square kilometres of what was cree land. The Crown got something for nothing, or at least not much. Everyone was given eight dollars per person up front ($169.47 in today’s inflation-adjusted currency) . . .”

“In 1919, the Soldier Settlement Act gave the government the right to forcibly take First Nations land so it could be sold to returning veterans. . . . the law that says companies, towns, and cities can seize Aboriginal land, as long as they collaborate with the Ministry — is still on the books under section 35 of the Indian Act. According to said laws, the company or government body doesn’t need the First Nation’s consent, as long as certain conditions are filled.

. . . Section 35 contravenes the spirit, if not the letter of the Canadian Human Rights Act, and several international agreements that Canada has signed.”

“Many First Nations leaders . . . espouse the link between suicide and employment. In support, they point to the genesis of the problems: until the 1960s, the idea of suicide did not exist for the Crees. There was no word for it. No one did it, or at least not in numbers that it impregnated the community’s consciousness enough for it to become a concept. but in the decade when First Nations received the vote, people began to take their own lives. It wasn’t the voting that caused it. In becoming citizens, the government began to take more interest in Aboriginal populations, and introduced more social policies to shape behaviour.

” . . . Although it is difficult to establish whether this link between poverty and suicide holds across all reserves in Canada . . . it is possible to compare averages across nations. In Canada, the suicide rate on reserves is 65 to 91 per 100,000, or five to seven times higher than the national average.

The median income for First Nations people on a reserve is fourteen thousand dollars, compared to thirty-three thousand dollars for everyone else, or less than half.

By contrast, in the United States, the Native American youth suicide rate is 22.5 per 100,000, or twice the national average. There, the median household income on reservations is $38,583 CAD, compared to $55,684 CAD nationally. The cross-border comparison is not only a national embarrassment, but supports Bachman’s theory.”

I know this ends rather abruptly, but if you have read this far, thank you. I hope you will make time to read the entire book. I assure you, you will be changed.


Phyllis writes words: words for stories, and words for books. Phyllis writes words for blogs too.

2 thoughts on “July 1, 2021

  1. Phyllis: You must read “Seven Fallen Feathers” by Tanya Talaga. It changed me. I also heard her speak in the CBC Massey Lecture series podcast. That was just as enlightening as the book.
    Thank you for sharing, my friend.

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