COLUMN: First Nations reserves need real change

The tragedy unfolding in First Nations reserves like Attawapiskat highlight the need for change with the reserve system in Canada. Isolation, systemic abuse, high unemployment, and poor living conditions. It is understandable how some, including youth, feel trapped where they are with no future. Drugs, alcohol, or suicide are seen as the only way to numb the pain or escape.

The reserve system is flawed, based on treaties made 100-plus years ago. Attawapiskat is part of “Treaty 9”, a treaty negotiated in the early 1900s. The world has changed and the treaties do not reflect modern life in Canada. Northern reserves remain isolated, difficult to get critical help needed to the people who need it most.

The Trudeau government promised billions in funding in this spring’s budget. Much of the funding for social, counseling and education programs occurs in years three and four, not now. Having the prime minister and his cabinet ministers stand up and read scripted answers in the House of Commons promoting their budget plan is no help. Empty words again.

There is no one quick fix solution, but quick action is needed.

One fix would be to immediately increase mental health funding and bring counseling services to reserves. This will help with those on the edge. Will it stop all suicide attempts? No, but help has to be there for those that need it. Right now, it is not.

Another fix, deploy the DART. The Canadian Armed Forces Disaster Assistance Response Team (DART) is able to deploy within 48-hours notice. The DART has three key components to assistance: water purification, primary medical care, and engineering help. Some northern reserves have gone without working water systems for years, many are in need of some form of medical care, and in need of engineering help. According to the Canadian Armed Forces website, the DART can be deployed to “permissive environments at the request of an affected nation.” Why hasn’t the government asked itself for help?

Another fix, build roads. Does it sound simplistic? Yes. Does it create jobs? Yes. Connect communities? Yes. Lower the cost of transportation of food, goods, materials and services to reserves? Yes. Are there challenges to building roads in the north? Of course there is, but railroads were built 100-plus years ago through the same conditions without the technology we have today. It can be done, if there is a will to do so.

The financial and governance issues on reserves need to be fixed, and done so by the First Nations on those reserves. On some First Nations reserves, it is lopsided in what the band council makes, and the living conditions of the residents. The federal government requires more financial accountability for First Nations bands, but this imbalance continues to be an issue. In this writer’s opinion, it would be unconscionable to be well paid on a band council, while the people you represent live in squalor.

The most challenging fix would be to move. That requires a change in policy in how First Nations are recognized. Right now, a First Nations person has to live on a reserve to receive certain treaty benefits from government. If they move off the reserve, those benefits reduce. Change the rules. Recognize a First Nations person’s treaty rights regardless of where they live in Canada. Some may claim that it will lead to more integration into the “white man’s society”. For some it may be, but that already happens. Just as the treaty’s which bound First Nations to a plot of land is outdated language, so too are the restrictions forcing them to stay.

This government has shown when it wants to do something, it will move fast to do so. In less than six months, 25,000 Syrian refugees arrived in Canada. They are fed, clothed, have access to better education and medical attention. They were immediately made permanent residents of Canada. That is great. Why can this government not do this for peoples who have been here longer than the rest of us? All governments, at all levels, have failed when dealing with First Nations people. This government, which campaigned on “Real Change” should affect real change for First Nations people in Canada. It will be expensive, but it must be done.