Montreal, November 15, 2005 • No 160




Bradley Doucet is a writer living in Montreal. He has studied philosophy and economics, and is currently completing a novel on the pursuit of happiness.




by Bradley Doucet


          The members of what are now called the First Nations sure seem to get the short end of the stick a lot. Hundreds of years ago, Europeans came to North America and conquered them with booze, smallpox, and superior firepower. In recent decades, the Canadian government abducted native children and locked them up for some forced re-education and abuse. In recent weeks, newspapers have reported notably on unsafe water supplies and inadequate housing on native reserves.


          Why all the problems? Any extensive discussion of the earlier suffering of indigenous North Americans is better left to others more versed in the details of our continent's history. It seems clear, though, that their more recent troubles – from childhood abductions to inadequate water and housing – are largely the result of the actions of elected government officials and unelected government bureaucrats who are supposed to represent the interests of Canadians. Governments, far from helping natives lead more prosperous lives, instead contribute to their suffering.

Water & Housing

          The water quality issue came to the foreground late last month when Health Canada officials discovered E. coli bacteria in Kashechewan's water supply. Many of the 1900 members of the native community, located on the banks of James Bay in Ontario's far North, were subsequently evacuated. Leo Friday, the chief of the Kashechewan reserve, has now negotiated a deal whereby the federal government has agreed to finance the construction of a whole new settlement.

          According to Conservative MP Jim Prentice, quoted in the October 29th edition of The Globe and Mail, the government's knee-jerk reaction would deal with the public relations problem, but would not "address the systemic incompetence of this government in dealing with aboriginal issues." Indeed, not only has Kashechewan been under a boil-water advisory for two years, but there are currently a total of 85 native communities across the country also under such advisories.

          The only problem with Mr. Prentice's statement is that he singles out this government, when there is in fact plenty of blame to spread around. For instance, the Globe's Julius Strauss reported on October 29th that when the Kashechewan settlement was planned in the 1950s, many locals wanted it to be built further upriver. Government officials of the day, however, worried that the barge carrying supplies would be unable to navigate the shallow waters, so they built it in its present location… which is flooded each spring, contributing to the reserve's water quality problem.

          Another general problem affecting many natives is housing. Overshadowed by news of the Kashechewan crisis, a small article by Paul Samyn in the October 26th edition of the National Post calls the aboriginal housing situation a "national embarrassment," despite the $3.5-billion Ottawa has spent on the problem in the past decade. Apparently, reserve housing suffers from "shoddy workmanship and widespread mould problems," a growing shortage that now numbers between 20,000 and 35,000 units, and an average wait of 32 months for assisted housing in the far North. Let's see: mould problems, shortages, long wait times, all despite the infusion of huge amounts of cash… now where have we heard this before?

The Question of Justice

          Issues that affect natives are often discussed in terms of justice, and the related issue of reparations. With respect to their centuries-old conquest by Europeans, the question of justice is complicated by several considerations. For one thing, the right of conquest was widely accepted when Europeans first crossed the Atlantic, and contrary to popular myth, many of the North American peoples themselves were anything but peaceful. For another thing, it is a strange notion of justice that would make the descendants of conquerors pay for the sins of their ancestors. The goal for any modern society, however violent its initial founding hundreds of years ago, should be to treat all of its current members justly.

"Natives need to reclaim their individual human rights from the encroachment of government. In fact, while the basic problem may be more acute on native reserves, it is not unique to them."

          The more recent sufferings of natives, though, show that we have yet to achieve that goal. Basic principles of justice dictate that individuals who suffered through residential school tragedies deserve to be compensated for their suffering by the individuals who carried out, supported, sanctioned or ignored their abuse. And let's be clear: any child forcibly removed from his or her home has suffered, whether physically abused or not. The process of compensating these human beings has begun, but it is decades late, and while this should spur the government to effect a rapid resolution, the justice system just plods along as lazily as ever.

          It can similarly be argued that members of communities who were forcibly relocated onto flood plains four or five decades ago have also been harmed by government, and deserve some kind of restitution. Counting on governments to make everything better has some serious drawbacks, though, which can lead to a culture of entitlement and victimhood taking hold, whereby all problems become someone else's fault. This is an easy trap for any of us to fall into, given the right incentives. We begin to feel like we have a claim on other people, and to expect their help not only in an emergency, but in perpetuity, because of our status as victims. Our focus shifts from finding solutions to assigning blame. Robbed of our own initiative, we start to feel helpless and despondent. Even if originally motivated by a desire to correct past injustices, depending on other people to provide for our every need leads to inactivity and depression, and then often to a different kind of dependency, which is evidenced by the alcoholism that has long plagued many native reserves.

Basic Human Rights

          While questions of justice are important, clearly a much broader perspective is required. Natives need to reclaim their individual human rights from the encroachment of government. In fact, while the basic problem may be more acute on native reserves, it is not unique to them. All Canadians need to reclaim the right to see to our children's education as we see fit; the right to decide for ourselves whether to live on a flood plain; the right to decide in what language we will conduct our affairs; the right to spend our own money as we will. Native leaders do repeatedly call for self-government, but they too often also call for more funds from Ottawa. These two demands are contradictory because government funds always come with strings attached.

          In order to reclaim our individual human rights, we need to forego those ersatz "rights" which statists of all stripes clamour for in a (largely successful) attempt to confuse the very notion of rights. There can be no such thing as a "right" to housing, food, health care, or education, because these are products and services that must be produced by someone. Even clean drinking water must be produced, in the sense that it must be cleaned and distributed. Any claim to a "right" to the product of someone else's efforts is a claim to enslave someone else. This is the very height of injustice. Everyone has the right to the product of his own efforts, and the right to engage in voluntary exchange with others. No one has the right to take the product of someone else's effort.

          The first step in rehabilitating the notion of rights is a big one: We must acknowledge that the mere presence of poverty is not by itself evidence of injustice. Though there is much to bemoan about a man who continually chooses vice over virtue and ends up poor, there is nothing particularly unjust in such a scenario. And, in the end, there is nothing particularly compassionate about subsidizing someone's vices and hastening their early death.

Taking the Initiative

          The limited, properly targeted pursuit of reparations for specific, recent injustices is not misguided. It is proper, and even prudent, to pursue justice, even if the immediate costs of doing so outweigh the immediate benefits to be gained. Raising the cost of committing a crime by punishing the perpetrators helps to minimize the future reoccurrence of similar injustice.

          Relying on governments to solve all of our problems, though, is ill-advised for the three reasons outlined above: it is unjust to other taxpayers who are forced to foot the bill; it is depressing and disempowering for the recipients of unearned benefits; and it leaves us in thrall to the redistributive powers that be and their repeatedly documented incompetence. More specifically, it leaves us with housing that is inadequate, drinking water that is unsafe, or hospitals that are overrun with mould.

          Not all native reserves resemble Third World settlements. Julius Strauss, in the November 12th edition of The Globe and Mail, writes about Peawanuck, another northern Ontario settlement that seems much better off than Kashechewan. There is far less crime, alcoholism and suicide in Peawanuck, and homes are generally well-maintained. Its tiny population of only 240 may have something to do with that, but as important is the fact that welfare dependence is almost non-existent. The people of Peawanuck actually do maintain traditional practices of hunting, fishing and trapping, and doing so helps them maintain a greater degree of autonomy than other reserves.

          Governments – all governments – have a vested interest in meddling as much as possible in our lives, with results that are unjust, depressing, and sub-standard. In a familiar pattern, problems are either caused or exacerbated by governments, and yet many believe that the solution is even more government. Canadians – all Canadians – need to extricate themselves from the trap of entitlement and the allure of getting something for nothing. Governments are perfectly happy to keep growing and growing despite the overwhelmingly negative consequences of that growth, so the impetus for change has to come from us. If we want to be freer and more prosperous, we must choose to rely less on the blunt instruments of government, and more on our ability to shape our own lives.