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Is This the Solution to Native Poverty?

08/13/2013 08:17 EDT | Updated 10/13/2013 05:12 EDT

Calvin Helin's book, Dances with Dependency, changed my life forever. As a university-educated Aboriginal, I was looking for answers to questions like: how could I best serve the Aboriginal Community? What are the solutions to the hardships faced by those living on-reserve? How can the quality of life be raised for all Aboriginal people?

I read books, studies, articles, Royal Commissions, consulted experts and traveled to approximately 200 First Nations and Metis Settlements. I worked primarily in the non-profit sector for Aboriginal organizations, usually as part of a pilot-project or Aboriginal youth employment program. With a few exceptions I mostly saw poverty and despair. A common thread in many of these communities was high unemployment, up to 80 per cent in some cases.

I, myself, was not always immune to it, even with a university education. The organization or program I was working for would routinely lose funding, pilot projects would be cancelled and occasionally organizations would be quietly shut down due to mismanagement. I was starting to feel the unspoken adage in the Aboriginal Community, "you can't change the system, the system changes you!"

It was during one of these stints of unemployment in 2006, while I was surfing the internet looking for a new job that I came across something different. The title Dances with Dependency: Out of Poverty through Self-Reliance was a little shocking at first. It was exactly what I had been thinking about all these years. I was even more shocked to see that it was written by a First Nations lawyer, economist and advocate for Aboriginal rights, Calvin Helin.

Now that I was intrigued, I ordered the book (with rush delivery) and received it in the mail a short time later. I did not realize then that I had found what would become for me a sort of "Holy Grail" of Aboriginal Economic Development. It only took me a couple of days to read the book from cover-to-cover and to acquire a new perspective on life. All this time, I had been looking for jobs without considering where the funding was coming from. I had been raised to believe that all money came from the government and the only way to get it was to beg, threaten or embarrass the Crown into funding your program.

I had put myself on a sort of "Mental Welfare," limiting my career options. I picked up the classifieds and saw a whole other side of the economy. I began looking at the jobs in the previously forbidden private sector. I had somehow been convinced that if I went to work for a company I would encounter racial discrimination or be hired only to fill some quota with no possibility of advancement.

Given my current employment status, I had no choice but to risk it. It turned out that joining the private sector was the best decision of my life. I made lifelong friends, advanced quickly and received an annual profit share bonus. I also learned how a large company operates and has its own culture and is part of a larger community within its industry or sector. I also gained the comfort of knowing where the money was coming from and how it was being earned.

In the end, only Calvin Helin was able to provide a simple and feasible solution to all of the issues facing my people; "Wai-Wah!" in his west coast Tsimshian native language roughly means "just do it" and may sound like a Nike slogan. What Helin believes has been crippling the Aboriginal Community for 150 years is dependence on government programs and services. First Nations must participate in the Canadian economy through private sector employment, business start-ups and entrepreneurship.

This system of dependency that Aboriginal people have been dancing with is completely unsustainable. With the Aboriginal community growing at six times the national average, there will eventually come a day when the "demographic tsunami", as Helin describes it, will drown the taxpaying public.

Many of those charged with fixing the problem are too busy profiting by it. The bureaucratic red tape that stifles progress in Aboriginal Economic Development must be overcome, in order to establish a long-term, viable, self-sustaining and self-governing Aboriginal Community.

Contrary to the highly politicized views of many Aboriginal policy makers, it is possible to adapt to a global economy while maintaining our Aboriginal culture, language and heritage. Wai-wah!

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