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Why blockades are now indigenous to Indigenous issues in Canada

Tim Querengesser

Today, the snow-crusted supply road that winds north of Attawapiskat to the Victor diamond mine has a new blockade, right where the last one was only recently dismantled. Blockades are yet again costing mine-owner De Beers, as well as Canadians, mineral revenues, royalties, and taxes.

Unfortunately in Canada, blockade stories typically begin and end like this. With Indigenous peoples ‘costing’ everyone else a lot of money. And, with the deeper issues remaining unexamined. As the political and social reaction to Idle No More demonstrates, however, the messier truth is this: That blockades are becoming indigenous to Indigenous politics itself in Canada. And much of the blame for this actually lies with non-Indigenous Canadians, for allowing their governments to continue to blockade ideas for positive change that emerge from within communities.

Yes, as all the best economic moralists will tell you, many of the problems Indigenous peoples face today have been created in their communities. John Graham, a former Indian Affairs bureaucrat and a consultant who’s worked with Indigenous communities for more than 25 years, argues poor governance continually blocks social and economic progress. The root causes, he argues, are the colonial imposition of the Indian Act, but also Indigenous governments that have grown too large, too politicized, and have demanded too much control over aspects of their lives—from healthcare, to education, to potable water.

“In some senses Aboriginal people have lead a charge, which has from a policy point of view resulted in these very large governments,” Graham says. “That’s very much part of the problem. They’re too large, with very few checks and balances.” While these governments are too big in a per capita sense, they’re conversely too tiny in a skills and capacity sense. Thus, in many communities (they’re not all reserves, by the way, as most media seem to think), “you can point to functions that they’re far too small to take on,” Graham says.

But concentrating on the Indigenous side of the issue allows federal and provincial blockades to progress to remain dirty little secrets.

Federal blockades?

Consider the 1996 Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, which, as I’ve written, was the result of urgent demands for change from Indigenous peoples during the 1990s. The Commission was a consensus of Indigenous and non-Indigenous participants that proposed scrapping the flawed systems we still have and implementing a 20-year investment in bold, new ideas. Unlike the status quo, the RCAP promised real economic and moral benefits for all Canadians.

But thanks to a blockade from Ottawa, the RCAP was never adopted and only rarely discussed afterwards—aside from when the Royal Bank of Canada argued it would save us all a lot of money. That it has hardly been mentioned in most Idle No More reportage, even as commentators criticize the movement for lacking a list of demands or a way forward, well, that’s only the latest insult.

It isn’t the big government blockades that do all the damage and cost us all a lot of money, though. We must also consider, as Graham does, the smaller innovations within individual communities that continually get turned down. “Underlying all of this,” Graham says, “you’ve got these very powerful central agencies like the Department of Justice and Finance that are essentially huge brakes on doing anything innovative. If you move outside their boxes you get nowhere.”

Though many Canadians believe Indigenous people need Ottawa to improve their lives, Graham points to the successful Tripartite Health Agreementin British Columbia—which transfers money and control over health care away from Ottawa and to several different First Nations governments, as a joint regional body—as an innovation from within, rather than from on high. While it’s set to make meaningful change in B.C., many other ideas like it, he says, continue to be stifled.

They’re blocked for being too far outside the box.

That box is something to consider when talking to Matthew Wildcat, a PhD candidate in political science and a Nehiyaw citizen who grew up in Maskwacis (Hobbema), Alberta. Innovations will come from Indigenous communities, Wildcat says, but to work, they’ll require support from all Canadians.

“It’s only going to be through some larger conceived political body that change is going to be made,” Wildcat says, noting that ongoing calls to reform the band council system are simply attempts to repair a bad and broken idea. What’s needed is something completely new, he argues.

Something transformative and innovative.

Yet we continue to focus on the band council as the place where reforms must be made. Some of the blame for this, Wildcat says, partially lies with band councils themselves, which have formed a “fortress mentality.” This defensive mindset, Wildcat argues, is the natural result of ongoing efforts by Ottawa to strip First Nations of rights, privileges, land, and powers.

Instead of continuing to chase our tail by talking of reforming band councils, Canada will need to have a wide-scale conversation amongst all parties, Wildcat says. And therein lies the main blockade. “What’s preventing these conversations is the unwillingness of Canada to treat Indigenous people as partners in this shared relationship,” he says.

Perhaps when you read words like First Nations and partners, the fear of cost pops into your mind. But consider what the status quo is costing you. Last year, the Canadian Chamber of Commerce estimated that, were the Canadian economy able to “fully engage” Indigenous peoples over the next 20 years, the GDP would swell by $401-billion, tax revenues would grow by $39-billion, and government expenditures would shrink by $77-billion.

While the chamber likely sees Indigenous issues as simply a barrier to industry’s access to needed wage labourers, the broader point stands: The cost of allowing the status quo is not just moral but economic. And the solution is to address where the problems really lie rather than cast more blame.

Stephanie Irlbacher-Fox, author of Finding Dahshaa, and a longtime land-claims negotiator, says problems in Indigenous communities can only be solved from within. It’s a lesson that international aid’s failure in Africa has taught the world, she says, but one Canada purposefully refuses to learn.

“Canada doesn’t fundamentally recognize that Indigenous people have a right to a different culture,” Irlbacher-Fox says. “At the end of the day, they can’t let change happen because it’s all about the land. They need Indigenous people to be dysfunctional [in order to take land], and they work hard to keep it that way.”

What’s clear when it comes to Indigenous issues in Canada is that the blockades will continue. But what must become clearer is that they’re being built and maintained on both sides of the divide. If Canadians want to move forward, they might start to consider just how much this tit-for-tat blockade business is costing all of us.

Tim Querengesser is an award-winning writer and a candidate for an M.A. in Canadian Studies and Indigenous Studies, based in Toronto. He reports on Indigenous issues, the North, politics, business, environment, and popular culture. Tim’s work has appeared in The Globe and Mail, Up Here, Canadian History, Adbusters, Alberta Views and the National Post, among other publications.

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