Idle No More and the Destruction of Canada's First Nations (Print Version)
by Harry Valentine*
Le Québécois Libre, January
15, 2013, No 307

The hunger strike of Chief Theresa Spence gained national attention and paved the way for First Nations chiefs to meet with Canada’s Prime Minister and Governor General. While the chiefs have good intentions for the people whom they represent, the task of rebuilding Canada’s First Nations communities may be beyond the scope of politics, politicians, bureaucrats and consultants. The destruction of Canada’s First Nations peoples was the direct result of many successive decades of government policies and bureaucratic actions.

The policies included the destruction of long-established traditional family structures that included extended family relationships where children had regular contact with their siblings and their parents’ siblings. Throughout early human history, people lived in extended family groups that provided for the emotional and survival needs of growing children. It is possible that young human children may have become emotionally hardwired through thousands of generations of evolution to have their emotional needs met by extended families.

In the past, Canadian government officials removed native children from their families and communities to place them into residential boarding schools, with the intention of destroying their language and culture and assimilating them into European culture. Successive generations of Canada’s native peoples subsequently suffered severe emotional trauma as a result of government policy.

Some of these survivors turned to alcohol or other addictions to offset the effects of having endured prolonged emotional and even physical trauma. Many of the survivors may have been emotionally unavailable to their children, who may subsequently have also become addicted to alcohol and/or drugs. There are unfortunate cases of First Nations women who left their reservations to work the brothel trade in large cities, often to support a drug addiction.

The War on Poverty

During Jamaica’s early colonial era, British administrators along with slave owners removed the fathers and older males from the traditional African family structures to break the rebelliousness of the slaves who worked the plantations on the island. Younger males formed into gangs and even up to the present day, a gang culture still forms part of Jamaican society. During America’s slave era, many slave owners allowed their slaves to live as families.

As American slaves gained their freedom during the latter half of the 19th century, they continued to live in family groups. Booker T. Washington was a former slave who taught himself how to read and write. He founded the Tuskegee school near New Orleans that provided freed slaves and their children with a basic education. Black community leaders such as Booker T. Washington encouraged the freed slaves to pursue an education and become productive and responsible citizens. Many former slaves entered the world of commerce and ran businesses.

The social destruction of black America began after the onset of social welfare programs initiated during the mid-1960s by President Lyndon Johnson as part of his “Great War on Poverty.” Prior to the welfare era, black American women had a lower rate of illegitimate births than white women. During the pre-civil rights era, the crime rate for black American males (along with rates of alcoholism, drug abuse, related addiction and gang membership) was lower than for white males. The Ku Klux Klan was a large and exclusive gang that excluded and persecuted black people.

Idle No More

The proponents of the Idle No More movement may wish to achieve objectives akin to Johnson’s “Great War on Poverty,” but government programs have a long history of achieving the opposite of the original intentions over the long term. Johnson and his officials may not have intended to create ghettoes in black American communities, but that is what happened. Crime, drug trafficking, drug addiction, alcoholism, gangs, single-mother families, high unemployment and a general sense of apathy are manifest in many inner city ghettoes.

Many of Canada’s First Nations reservations share much in common with those ghettoes, including crime, drug addiction, drug trafficking, gang activity and general violence. Earlier government social policies broke the traditional extended family relationships that formed the social and cultural basis of traditional native communities. Before the national and provincial governments intruded into native affairs, their communities were self-sufficient and self-reliant. Native communities traded amongst each other, many using river transport as the means by which to move goods and food.

A small percentage of black ghetto residents were able to move out of the ghettoes and pursue an education that went beyond the inferior education offered at inner city ghetto schools. Some of them may have sought help from privately-funded self-help support groups that helped them rebuild their lives. They chose to strive to achieve something worthwhile in their lives. Likewise, a percentage of First Nations citizens were able to make a similiar transition away from life on a reservation, sometimes with the assistance of a self-help group.

Some First Nations people have achieved college and university educations and pursued job opportunities in the larger cities and served as role models and mentors for younger siblings and cousins to make a positive transition from the reservation to a productive life in a large city. The transition often includes active participation in a support group or in a spiritual healing program along with the pursuit of an education.

Despite the apathy and squalor that prevails on many reservations, there are bright spots where private entrepreneurial activity has opened doors of possible opportunity. There is the example of the world’s cleanest fish farm off Canada’s Pacific Coast, where First Nations entrepreneurs raise abalone for Vancouver’s fish markets and restaurant trade. The cigarette factories located on a reservation to the southeast of Ottawa have opened doors of entrepreneurial activity that involves transporting the cigarettes across international borders. If the Idle No More movement is to achieve its goals of improving the lives of First Nations people, it will need to make room in its program for the expansion of private entrepreneurial activity on reservations.

* Harry Valentine is a free-marketeer living in Eastern Ontario.