12/04/2011 12:48 EST | Updated 02/02/2012 05:12 EST

Two Sides of the Same Bay


I was born and raised on the Quebec side of James Bay, across from Attawapiskat, a community that has been in the news lately. A lot of credit goes to people like my colleague, Charlie Angus, for raising the profile of the housing crisis there and getting people involved. If you haven't heard yet, Attawapiskat is a First Nation where many people are without homes for the winter. They will go without running water. They have gone without a school for a generation of children.

This is not unusual.

People may recall the stories about Kashechewan that were in all the media a few years ago, or Pikangikum. There are many others. Sandy Bay First Nation in Manitoba wants people to know they are in similar circumstances.

Estimates are that 80,000 new houses are needed and similar numbers are in need of major repair across the country. There are over 100 communities living under boil water advisories. There are over 40 First Nations that have no school for their children to attend.

Embarrassed by the media and public attention, the Harper government leapt into action this week and immediately blamed the people of Attawapiskat. Basically, they said that big money had been spent there, so we'll solve the situation by sending in an accounting firm to run the government.

Others have analyzed that spending to demonstrate the fallacy on which Harper is relying, an argument that really shouldn't need to be made. Does anyone think people would choose to live this way? Or is it just that Indians can't be trusted to manage money?

Outside the government, people are mobilizing, donating items of use, and the Red Cross has gotten involved. Most are treating this as the crisis it is, pointing to the avoidable tragedy and urgently pleading for help to stop it from happening. Let's hope that succeeds.

But what about the dozens of communities where the media aren't paying attention? Will crises come and go relatively unnoticed? And what about stopping this from happening over and over again?

That is where people need to see the bigger picture and focus on solutions.

The bigger picture explains why Attawapiskat should not be seen in isolation. The situation there is the result of deliberate policies.

It begins with the Crown breaking the partnerships with First Nations that formed the basis of the treaties and ignoring their own laws, like the Royal Proclamation of 1763. Yes, history matters if you want to understand how we got to this point.

It is followed by a policy of segregation. They invented the idea of "status" Indians, as defined by the Crown, and created reserves, where the Crown chose what it thought was valueless land and compelled people to stay there.

That was followed by the policy of assimilation, where the Crown reversed itself and started encouraging people to leave reserves to join the rest of Canadian society. Encouragement took the form of legislation that stripped people of their "status" and denied them the right to live with their families and communities if they did things like get an education.

The policy of assimilation is still in place. Only now, the Government of Canada uses talk of formal equality -- treating everyone exactly the same -- to justify treating First Nations like they have no Aboriginal or treaty rights, despite the Constitution of Canada and the UN Declaration.

So, there will be no partnership with First Nations to support them in self-government. There will be no co-operation in planning and implementing effective long-term strategies to make reserves liveable. There will be no money to help catch up from decades of neglect and mismanagement by a distant bureaucracy. There will be red tape and catch-22s and bureaucratic inertia. The plan is that the reserves will fail and people will have to move away. Those who don't die first.

That plan is what John Duncan is hinting at when he talks about "unviable reserves." They're pressing to close them down and send people into the cities as they tried with Kashechewan. They are introducing legislation to privatize reserve lands so that they can be sold or taken in default of loans. The fact that this will make resources, like the diamonds around Attawapiskat, more readily and cheaply available to developers is pure coincidence, I'm sure.

There are solutions. Working in the original spirit of partnership, supported rather than constrained in self-governance, First Nations can move forward. The deal that I helped negotiate between the Grand Council of the Crees and the Government of Quebec called La Paix des Braves has achieved some of that and is benefitting people from all communities in the area, Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal, right now. It is not the only example. That is what is meant by reconciliation.

On the other side of the same bay from Attawapiskat, their Cree cousins are not living in the same squalor. It can happen elsewhere.