For Canada and First Nations, it’s time to end the experiments

Shawn Atleo


The Globe and Mail | July 25, 2013


Recent reports about the Canadian government’s experiments on hungry, impoverished First Nations children in residential schools have sent a shock wave through the country.

My reaction was deeply personal. My father attended one of the schools where these experiments took place. My family and countless others were treated like lab rats, some even being deprived of necessary nutrition and health care so researchers could establish a “baseline” to measure the effects of food and diet.

First Nations, while condemning the government’s callous disregard for the welfare of children, were perhaps the only ones not completely surprised. The experiments are part of a long, sad pattern of federal policy that stretches through residential schools, forced relocations and the ultimate social experiment, the Indian Act, which overnight tried to displace ways of life that had been in place for generations. All of these experiments are abject failures.

It’s time to end the experiments. Canada must start working with us to honour the promises our ancestors made in treaties and other agreements, to give life to our rights as recognized by Canadian courts and relinquish the chokehold of colonial control over our communities.

As I said on the day this report came to light: Canada, this is your history. We must confront the ugly truths and move forward together. And there is a way forward that requires a dedicated commitment across three key areas: respect, fairness and reconciliation.

Respect requires that Canada work with First Nations to give life to our rights, title and treaties. This requires true partnership. The government must stop making decisions for us and start working with us. First Nations want control over the decisions that affect their lives, to shape their own policies and institutions. They are putting ideas on the table and driving solutions.

We see this clearly in the commitment and clarion call for First Nations control of First Nations education. We reject unilaterally imposed legislation. We will exercise our right to create our own systems that are sustainable, that support our children’s success and value our languages and cultures. This is already happening in Nova Scotia, Alberta, B.C. and elsewhere – First Nations working together and pooling expertise to achieve graduation rates that exceed provincial norms. This is success we must support. It must be not the exception, but our collective expectation and commitment.

Fairness requires that we end the unequal funding that condemns too many of our people to a daily struggle to survive. The experiments on our children did not make us poor. Rather, the government experimented on our children because they were poor, an impoverished population suffering from malnutrition and deprivation. But like so much else, poverty was imposed on us. The research notes that government systematically cut back relief payments to First Nations throughout the Depression era. Non-indigenous Canadians received relief at a rate two and three times higher than First Nations. At the onset of the Second World War, relief was cut again and we were further deprived.

This is still happening. Funding for First Nations – for many of the same things Canadians expect, such as schools and infrastructure – has been capped at a 2-per-cent increase, per year, for 17 years, despite the fact that our population has boomed and inflation outpaces this amount. Provinces enjoy transfers closer to 6 per cent, and these are guaranteed.

Escaping the poverty trap requires fairness, an investment now so we can build stable communities today and stronger nations tomorrow. Research shows that healthy First Nations can contribute hundreds of billions to the economy, while saving more than a $100-billion in costs connected to poverty. Why would we not support this approach?

Finally, the way forward requires reconciliation. This means truth telling, and it requires deliberate and clear action. The government must come forward and disclose all documentation on residential schools to the national Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The government must be open and transparent in accounting for its spending on First Nations and the billion dollars that is poured into the bureaucracy each year. The government must stop stalling and release all documents related to its unequal funding of First Nations child welfare, the subject of a current complaint before the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal. It also means action to advance reconciliation through recognizing our inherent rights and responsibilities and clear commitment to honouring and implementing treaties and agreements forged between the Crown and First Nations.

Canadians are rightfully shocked by these revelations. It shakes the core of their belief in Canada as a fair and just nation. It’s time to be honest about our history. We can’t change the past but we must commit to change the present and work together to create a better, brighter and just future.