Use the money well
Being politicians, several of Canada’s aboriginal leaders have found much to pick at in the statement of reconciliation that Indian Affairs Minister Jane Stewart delivered in Ottawa last week.
But ordinary aboriginal people are far more likely to simply accept Stewart’s words for what they are: an earnest attempt to admit the terrible wrongs that non-aboriginal Canadians have inflicted upon aboriginal people in the past, and a commitment to make amends for them.
Given the lingering bitterness and hostility that many aboriginal people feel towards non-aboriginal governments, that, all by itself, is a major accomplishment.
Stewart also backed up her talk with solid commitments. As most of us have already heard, Ottawa will spend $350 million on treatment and healing programs for those who have been abused in residential schools, and other commitments to spend smaller amounts of money on housing and language training.
Notwithstanding all that, it’s obvious that there are groups of aboriginal people who have good reasons of their own for finding faults in Stewart’s statement.
For example, ITC President Okalik Eegeesiak said she’s disappointed that Stewart did not specifically mention the relocation of Inukjuak Inuit to the High Arctic, and the contribution that all Inuit have made to maintaining Canadian sovereignty over one-third of Canada’s land mass.
These are valid points, as far as they go.
But Stewart’s responsibility was to respond to the all of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples’ report. That report contains a lengthy section that details many arbitrary relocations of aboriginal people.
For example, the report documents the relocation of Manitoba Metis whose farm houses were burned to the ground, the relocation of Nova Scotia Micmacs from communities where they had lived for generations, the relocation of Carrier Dene in British Columbia whose lands were flooded by a hydro-electric project, the relocation of Labrador Inuit from northern Labrador, various relocations of Keewatin and Netsilik Inuit, and many, many others.
That’s likely why, in her statement, Stewart referrred to the “relocation of aboriginal people” within a general list of wrongs that have been committed.
And though Stewart did not mention the specific contributions that Inuit have made to Canadian sovereignty, she did say this: “The contributions made by all Aborginal peoples to Canada’s development, and the contributions they continue to make to our society today, have not been properly acknowledged.”
That, surely, includes the contributions that Inuit have made.
As for the future, it’s clear what the responsibilities of Canada’s Inuit leaders ought to be.
And that is to ensure that the Inuit share of Ottawa’s treatment and healing money benefits the greatest possible numbers of people. Stewart said the money is intended for “community-based” programs and that is where it should go.
That means that grant-hungry Ottawa-based Inuit organizations like ITC and Pauktuutit should not be allowed to use the money for the construction of new bureaucratic empires of the type that not so long ago nearly drove ITC into bankruptcy.
That money must be regarded as an investment in people and not an investment in consultants or committees or strategies or studies or any other abstract bureaucratic constructions.
Regional organizations such as the Nunavut Social Development Council could be asked for advice on how and where to direct the money. As well, existing organizations, such as the government-run Inuit treatment centres in Iqaluit and Kuujjuaq should be consulted to find out if their facilities might be used to host future treatment and healing activities.
In the Arctic, the survivors of the Joseph Bernier school in Chesterfield Inlet will, of course, want to organize their own activities, which must be given high priority in the allocation of money.
Leaders must remember, however, that there are many, many Inuit who never attended a residential school but whose need for treatment is just as great. They, too, must not be ignored. JB