12/06/2011 08:57 EST | Updated 02/05/2012 05:12 EST

We Can't Fix Attawapiskat Until We Fix the Indian Act


How utterly and depressingly tragic -- and predictable -- the scene in Attawapiskat is.

It is one that is repeated year after year. A television camera brings the third world conditions of a Canadian community into our homes. The story and images of abject poverty and despair in Aboriginal communities becomes the flavour of the week on the nation's editorial pages. We profess our collective revulsion that this can exist in our country. The federal government of the day declares that it has been spending a lot of money, so the situation must be someone else's fault. But, they assure us, they are on the case and will fix the problem immediately.

Another Aboriginal community that no one has ever heard of, much less correctly pronounce, sits in a remote part of Canada. There is no apparent reason for that small group of people to be there. There are no schools, no hospitals, and no economy to sustain these people. There is nothing for people to do except watch television, drink and do drugs. Yet, the people that live in these desolate places call it home. And they are into their fifth generation as being wards -- dependents -- of the state.

That is because the Indian Act -- an arcane law of our Parliament as old as Canada itself that institutionalizes apartheid on our soil -- makes it impossible for Ottawa's paternalistic iron grip of dependency to be loosened. The law stipulates that the "reserve" is home, and being a member of that community entitles you to a life of being taken care of by Ottawa. Over time, generations of our fellow citizens have known no other way to live.

So, perversely, in the name of "doing what's right" for our fellow Canadians, we keep these proud, cultured, spiritual, and rich societies in emotional, financial, and psychological bondage.

The Indian Act and all it represents should make us bow our heads in shame. More constructively, it should compel us to action to demand that Ottawa and the provinces address the fundamentals of this longstanding blight on our national soul.

Making action more difficult are the few Aboriginal "leaders" that make a very healthy living off the status quo and don't want to change it. So do an army of lawyers, consultants, bankers, and government bureaucrats. The "Indian industry" is big business. Politicians have every incentive to "manage" these files by continuing to throw money at it. The Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development alone spends $13 billion. There is much more.

After six full years as prime minister, Stephen Harper has decided to meet national chiefs of the Assembly of First Nations in January. Like his recognizing the importance of China and India, better late than never, I suppose. So here's some free advice: Mr. Harper, why don't you take your majority for a test drive on something really important? It is something that previous governments -- whether they were Liberal or Progressive Conservative -- never had the courage to fix; something that is a real problem, not an imaginary one like spending billions for more jails for a crime rate that is at record lows. A problem, that if you demonstrate some statesmanship, could unlock the vast untapped potential of our national economy, save countless lives and fuel hope, and make us all even more proud to be Canadian.

Take a deep dive into this problem. Inject your full authority creating an aggressive reform agenda, beginning with the Indian Act. Expedite the settlement of treaties as the courts have told you must be done. And invest significantly in Aboriginal education and training.

Like the rest of us, Aboriginal people thirst to be productive contributing members of our society. They want access to the same opportunities that the rest us of take for granted. They want -- and are fully entitled to get -- their freedom. As Canadian citizens, they deserve no less. And that's all they truly want to be - Canadian - with all the rights and responsibilities that goes with that honour.

Daniel D. Veniez is a Vancouver businessman. He ran for the Liberal Party of Canada in 2011. He is working on a book on policy and politics that will be published next year.