01/18/2013 07:57 EST | Updated 03/20/2013 05:12 EDT

Overheard on the VIA Train: "Indians Are Lazy"

A study made last summer by Nanos Research and the Institute for Research on Public Policy ranks aboriginal issues as the least important concern among Canadians. Yet aboriginals have health and education levels lower than the national average, higher rates of poverty, drug abuse and criminality; and youths who commit suicide up to seven times more than non-native youths. Who cares that colonial policies since Canada's origin have put the Indians on a slow, steady course to oblivion?

The way of thinking behind one who'd ask this question is revealed, in part, by Arthur Koestler in his 1944 New York Times essay, "On Disbelieving Atrocities." He defines "a psychological fact, inherent in our mental frame," that modern consciousness is split in two.

Our individual lives form "the trivial plane," severed from "the tragic plane," where we store knowledge about others at some remove from our intimate circle, enduring lives rooted in a long history of misfortune. We may know or believe how much they suffer, but remain largely unaware because:

[d]istance in space and time degrades intensity of awareness. So does magnitude ... A dog run over by a car upsets our emotional balance and digestion; three million Jews killed in Poland cause but a moderate uneasiness.

I quote this passage not to compare the Jewish Holocaust to centuries of aboriginal suffering, but to suggest obstacles to a full, sustained "awareness" of the gravity of natives' past, present and future.

We rarely see aboriginals. Barely a million are left, at least half of whom live scattered across Canada on remote reserves. It's as if they don't exist, making bile of our thoughts every few months when they appear in the news cycle, often in stories about corrupt reserve chiefs and band councils who hoard our tax dollars for themselves and their friends and families, nepotism the government nurtures. Our cash is supposed to be funding reserve housing, education and health care. We doubt the Crown can improve their lives.

Then Idle No More protesters block transportation routes and thus the economy. In terms of job creation, the economy ranks only below health care in the Nanos study of what concerns us most: issues that are "quite close to the day-to-day lives of Canadians," who live quite far from aboriginals.

On the evening of December 30, I boarded a train to Montreal from Toronto. We were delayed at Union Station for four hours due to an INM blockade of tracks near Belleville. My train car was filled to capacity with families, students, businesspeople and the elderly, largely white.

An attendant announced in a surly tone that the train had been stopped due to "une manifestation d'Indiens." Contrary to news reports, my fellow passengers weren't "taking it in stride." Many groaned but didn't speak; I wrote down some of the comments others shared about "the lazy Indians."

A middle-aged mother observed, "The only reason they're out there is because they don't have jobs." Her husband offered a solution to end the blockade: "Just give them a bushel of tobacco." Laughs. "And a box of glue." More laughs. A male student suggested, "If the train moves real slow, they'll have enough time to get out of the way and we can pass without running them over." His friend asked, rhetorically I think, "Why can't we run 'em over?"

It seems more native youths, Canada's fastest growing population, are choosing to integrate into modern society. As they find a way to do so on their own terms, they encounter from the mainstream a kind of traditional warmth, like the holiday spirit of those on the train.