Another Stereotype of the Month entry:
Off the reservation
The reserve system is Canada's worst moral failing. Let's do the right thing and get rid of it
Tuesday, October 23, 2007
In an ongoing series, National Post writers are being asked a simple question: If you had the power to change a single thing about Canada, what would it be? In today's instalment, Jonathan Kay proposes a radical reform to our native policy.
When it comes to what needs fixing, every problem in this country pales beside our signature disgrace: the state of Canada's native reserves. The worst are bastions of truly Third World-style poverty and decrepitude, infectious disease and stomach-churning social pathologies.
In strictly numerical terms, the problem is not large. There are about 400,000 natives living on reserves—just 1.3% of the Canadian population. It would be a simple thing to cap this wellspring of misery if we had the right policies in place. But that's the problem:We don't.
Every time the native file makes the news, the proposed solutions are the same: more money and more self-government. Each year the federal government spends over $8-billion on reserve-resident natives, or $80,000 per reserve-resident household (a statistic I never get tired of quoting, because it puts to rest the idea that natives are somehow being nickel-and-dimed under the current system). We have handed over all sorts of powers to native bands, even creating a new extra-constitutional order of government in the process.
None of this has worked, and the reason is simple: Our policy of propping up reserves with massive government subsidies flies in the face of three well-observed empirical truths learned the hard way in societies around the world. — The modern global economy is driven by cities, which serve as hubs for high-value knowledge industries, skilled workers and transportation networks. Rural economies have been dying since the Second World War. No government would pay white Canadians to confine themselves to the jobless outback, hundreds of miles from the country's universities and job centres (unless, perhaps, they lived in Atlantic Canada, a subject for a separate "Fixing Canada" column). Yet that is exactly what we do with our native population. — One of the great lessons of the 20th century was that collective land ownership is a recipe for economic disaster. Behind the Iron Curtain, agricultural productivity exploded once people were given the right to own their own parcels of land outright, and sell the proceeds for profit. As Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto has definitively shown, denying land title to slum dwellers is one of the main impediments to prosperity in poor societies.
Yet almost two decades after the Iron Curtain fell, our reserves are still run—literally—like Marxist workers' collectives (to the extent anyone actually works). Every once in a while a Canadian reporter wanders around a reserve and writes shocked dispatches about the run-down quality of housing stock. Question: Would you pay good money to take care of your house if you couldn't sell it, couldn't use it to acquire mortgage financing and you knew someone else would build you a new one as soon as the old one collapsed? — Welfare destroys societies. Temporary government entitlements such as EI are fine for helping people get back on their feet. But when they become the permanent income source for an entire community—be it an inner-city American ghetto or a Canadian native reserve—civic life unravels. In a welfare society, the discipline and pride of workaday life are absent, men lose their social function, alcoholism carries no price (the cheque arrives whether you're drunk or sober) and people are encouraged to view government as nothing but a platform for doling out booty.
All three of these principles have guided Western policymakers for generations. Yet when it comes to natives, we pretend we never learned them. Many aboriginal advocates claim that racism is the main barrier facing natives. I would say it's the opposite: We somehow have convinced ourselves that native societies have the collective, superhuman ability to resist the gravitational socioeconomic forces governing every other society on Earth. Like all utopian experiments, this one has led to disaster and heartache—played out in everything from water contamination to glue-sniffing to abused children.
My fix for Canada is to make life better for natives by treating them like real human beings who are governed by the same empirically observed weaknesses and incentives as the rest of humanity—not Rousseauvian noble savages.
A proper native policy would be guided by the three principles listed above. The most decrepit and remote reserves, such as Kashechewan and Natuashish, would simply be torn down—their inhabitants installed at government expense in population centres of the residents' choice. The hundreds of millions of dollars that go into running these hellholes would be used to teach job skills, detox the drunks, educate the children and otherwise integrate the families into mainstream Canadian life.
Those reserves that have a fighting chance at developing a self-sustaining local economy—either through proximity to urban centres, tourism, agri-business or resource extraction—would be reorganized as municipal corporations. Land would be privatized and turned over to individuals, who would then own it in fee simple. Natives would stay if they chose—but only if they could find the employment necessary to feed themselves: Aside from treaty-mandated entitlements and regular government social programs, they would be cut off from the dole.
Self-government would be possible, but only in the same limited way that any Canadian city or town is self-governing. The conceit that native reserves can be reconceived as culturally distinct "nations" would be given up in favour of a model that promotes integration.
All this, of course, would represent a massive legal and political undertaking—requiring not only the destruction of the Indian Act, but also, possibly, a rewriting of the Constitution. Even the act of parcelling out reserve land to band members would itself be a decades-long exercise, requiring armies of land surveyors and bureaucrats to accomplish. This is a radical fix I am proposing, and I have no illusions about how wrenching the experience of cultural dislocation would be for the affected communities.
That said, it is a trauma that need only be inflicted once—as opposed to the status quo, under which every generation of reserve-resident natives suffers under our dysfunctional system afresh. Which, I ask, is the more inhumane?
© National Post 2007
This is a classic case of blaming the victim for the problem. Kay ignores every historical cause of First Nations poverty and focuses solely on his ideological whipping boys.
A few specific responses:
>> The worst are bastions of truly Third World-style poverty and decrepitude, infectious disease and stomach-churning social pathologies. <<
Note Kay's rhetorical trick here. He disparages the "worst" Native reserves, then seeks the dissolution of all the reserves because of the worst ones. He doesn't tell you a thing about how many reserves are among the worst or how the non-worst reserves are doing. Clearly he doesn't care; he wants to eliminate every reserve whether it's doing well or not.
>> Every time the native file makes the news, the proposed solutions are the same: more money and more self-government. Each year the federal government spends over $8-billion on reserve-resident natives, or $80,000 per reserve-resident household (a statistic I never get tired of quoting, because it puts to rest the idea that natives are somehow being nickel-and-dimed under the current system). <<
I don't know if this statistic is true or not, but it sounds bogus. Money that's spent on infrastructure, for instance, doesn't contribute directly to alleviating poverty.
Similarly, in the US you wouldn't divide the defense budget by the number of troops and say the troops are grossly overpaid. Obviously, much of the money goes to non-human expenses.
>> None of this has worked, and the reason is simple: Our policy of propping up reserves with massive government subsidies flies in the face of three well-observed empirical truths learned the hard way in societies around the world. <<
Actually, tribal sovereignty is working just fine, at least in the US. See The Facts About Tribal Sovereignty: The Effectiveness Argument for details.
>> No government would pay white Canadians to confine themselves to the jobless outback, hundreds of miles from the country's universities and job centres <<
That's funny. In the US we offer countless subsidies for rural living: farm support, freeways, airports, telecommunications, utilities, etc. It's well-known that rural states get much more in government spending per capita than urban states do.
For more on the subject, see The Myth of American Self-Reliance.
>> One of the great lessons of the 20th century was that collective land ownership is a recipe for economic disaster. <<
See Tierney: Federal Bureaucracies Caused Indians' Downfall for some arguments on the land-owning issue.
>> Many aboriginal advocates claim that racism is the main barrier facing natives. I would say it's the opposite <<
I'd say Kay's unwillingness to address the claim of ongoing racism shows his obvious bias. Don't just assert it doesn't exist, Kay—prove it.
>> The most decrepit and remote reserves, such as Kashechewan and Natuashish, would simply be torn down—their inhabitants installed at government expense in population centres of the residents' choice. <<
Does Kay also want to tear down the most decrepit and remote white areas of poverty? Can you say "discrimination"? How about "racism"?
For more of Kay's prejudiced opinions, see Kay: Indians Are Preserving "Hunter-Gatherer Traditions" and Canada's Aboriginals Are "Sedentary Welfare-Collectors".
The "outdated" reservation system
Indians as welfare recipients
. . .
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