Kashechewan woes boil down to leadership

Lawrence Solomon
National Post
November 5, 2006

Canada’s federal government and Ontario’s provincial government pointed the finger at each other when the deplorable drinking water in Kashechewan, the native reserve in Northern Ontario, exploded to public attention last week. Ontario blamed the federal government, which quickly accepted responsibility, but Canadians should know where most of the blame truly lies.

Squarely in the native community.

To say, as Prime Minister Paul Martin did last week, that “Fundamentally, [the tainted water] is our responsibility and we accept it and we’re going to take action,” is rank paternalism, a failure to demand accountability, and a prescription for more disasters down the road.

Although Canadian taxpayers foot almost the entire bill, natives own and operate their own water facilities. The Office of the Auditor General of Canada explained the areas of native responsibility just this September in its Report of the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development to the House of Commons. “First Nations are responsible for the construction, upgrade and day-to-day management of water systems.” The federal government funds all design and construction costs, and 80% of the operating costs, a mere 20% expected to come from user fees. The federal government entirely funds the sampling and testing of water.

Yet although the safety of their water system is predominantly within native control, native leaders hire incompetents to run their plants – the Auditor General’s report found most lack the needed knowledge and skill, and only 10% of operators met provincial certification requirements. Although federal guidelines call for testing that averages at least once a week, the report found that “regular tests of drinking water are not carried out in most First Nations. . . . In some cases, First Nations failed to carry out water tests for periods as long as seven months.”

Although the federal government has spent billions on First Nations water and waste-water systems, the quality of native water has been getting worse, with 75% of systems considered dangerous in 2001, up from 25% in 1995.

The problem is not lack of funding. The problem is lack of governance. The Auditor General’s report could not account for how natives spent the federal monies they received because they aren’t required to keep records. They aren’t even required to spend the money they receive for water on water. Because there is no accountability, the money that First Nations receive goes to incompetence and, all-too-often, to cronies and to outright corruption.

The breakdown in governance extends throughout native society, as seen in decrepit native housing, in appalling rates of suicide, in widespread unemployment. Short of leaving the reserve and integrating themselves into mainstream Canadian culture – most natives, having voted with their feet, now live in urban areas – the lot of most natives won’t improve until they rise up against their own leaders. Throwing more billions of dollars at the problem not only misses the core problem, it exacerbates it: The money goes to native leaders who all-too-often use it to buy votes from willing factions, securing their control over the balance of the reserve. The welfare society that government money engenders, much more than the white man’s injustices, has laid the native low.

The government of Canada would do far more to improve the lot of natives by speeding up land claims and other settlements for past wrongs, and to do so in a way that empowers natives to become independent. The sovereignty of First Nations ultimately rests not in their governments but in their people. Because so many native governments are corrupt, our government should go over the heads of native leaders and offer natives two versions of any settlement package that’s ultimately agreed upon: The one that had been negotiated with the band and an alternative – equal in value – that would distribute the settlement to all band members on a per capita basis. A referendum would allow natives to choose between the two offers – essentially, a choice between the collectivist system of governance that is now in place and one in which native families own property in their own right, with the right to buy and sell or otherwise dispose of it as they choose.

If natives chose a collectivist system, they would retain a system prone to corruption, and a system of welfare that would last until the settlement money ran out. If natives chose a property-based system, in contrast, they would also be acquiring a financial stake in their community and the seed money a community needs to grow. And, in all likelihood, a functioning democracy that will also protect the health of the population.

Lawrence Solomon, author of the forthcoming book Toronto Sprawls, is executive director of Urban Renaissance Institute and Consumer Policy Institute, divisions of Energy Probe Research Foundation.; www.uban.probeinternational.org

A reader responds

Kashechewan’s woes

Re: Kashechewan woes boil down to leadership, Lawrence Solomon, Nov. 5

I think your article hit the bull’s eye. My father worked as an accountant at a Northern Alberta Indian band on and off for 20 years. Every time a band election brought a new leader, he found himself unemployed after pushing his belief in a strong and accountable band council. About six to nine months after his dismissal, he was brought back when the council saw its finances in complete disarray in his absence. Essentially ─ as you point out ─ there is very little accountability.

We lived in the Edmonton area, and once I had a week off from school, so I took my hockey equipment and went up north with him to spend the week playing hockey. You can guess my shock when a Zamboni ─ fit for any professional hockey arena in Canada ─ rolled out to flood an outdoor rink. This was my first experience at the excesses spent on our natives.

Through my father’s employment I’ve seen enough abuses and fiscal mismanagement to convince me that the government of the day would rather throw money at the problem than logical solutions.

I believe the real solution is to abandon the reserve system and encourage the natives to integrate into the work force. Although this is easier said than done and unlikely to happen, we must work to reduce their dependence upon the government.

Cory Houston, Mississauga, Ont., National Post, Nov. 19, 2005

Further commentary

Lessons from Kashechewan

by Jonathan Kay, National Post, November 21, 2005

The ongoing scandal of Canada’s native reserves follows a predictable pattern. First, some particularly appalling story is revealed in the media ─ say, a rash of suicides, or on-camera glue-sniffing or an epidemic of some obsolete disease that white Canada said goodbye to 50 years ago. Then, the wretchedness is held up as an example of how natives are being ignored by Ottawa, and by a racist white society more generally. And since Indian leaders and their counterparts in Ottawa can conceive of only one solution to this problem ─ more money ─ the only question becomes how many millions taxpayers will fork over.

Over the last month, this pattern has been unfolding in the remote James Bay community of Kashechewan. In October, the story broke that the village’s 1,900 Cree were drinking water polluted with E. coli. Hastily dispatched journalists sent home stories of lice, scabies and other horrors. None of these ailments, it turns out, had much to do with the drinking water ─ they were just part of the normal squalor that attends life in the country’s worst reserves. But out of sheer habit, the media blamed Ottawa anyway.

Writing in the Globe and Mail, Stan Beardy, Grand Chief of the Nishnawbe First Nation, summed up the conventional wisdom nicely with his claim that the scandal reflected “100 years of abuse and neglect.” Paul Martin was already planning to pour as much as half a billion dollars into Ottawa’s annual budget for aboriginal programs ─ but Kashechewan should bump that figure up significantly.

It’s all part of the perverse tragedy of Canada’s natives: Every time we’re confronted with a scandal that demonstrates just how inhumane it is to encourage aboriginals to remain encamped in destitute, disease-ridden Bantustans, the nation’s activists and politicians conspire to stand the lesson on its head ─ to argue that what we really need is more subsidies for this obsolete way of life. Meanwhile, the more obvious solution ─ encouraging natives to migrate to urban schools and job centres ─ is denounced as a form of cultural genocide.

For anyone seeking the truth about what lessons we should be taking from Kashechewan, two documents stand out. The first is Laurie Gough’s shocking account of her tenure as a Grade 3 teacher in the Cree village, published in Saturday’s National Post. Even before the water crisis, her eyewitness account shows, Kashechewan was a dysfunctional community bereft of any kind of functioning civil society or economy. Left to its own devices, such a community would mercifully disintegrate within months, and its inhabitants would be given a chance to build meaningful lives elsewhere. But with enough outside funding, Ottawa has shown us, even the most miserable community can grind on in perpetuity.

The other document to read is Jessica Leedler’s excellent investigative account published in the Nov. 10 Toronto Star. Far from being neglected, Leedler shows, Kashechewan had been provided with a state-of-the-art water treatment facility in 1996. And when that system churned out dirty water thanks to the incompetence of band workers, consultants were flown in to fix it.

In 2002, those consultants diagnosed the key problem: The local sewage lagoon had become clogged by beaver dams, and so waste was overflowing into Red Willow Creek, the source of the town’s drinking water. Had the band’s two water operators followed the consultants’ clear instructions and dismantled any new dams, there likely would have been no E. coli. But they didn’t. Nor did they repair the broken chlorine injector. According to Leedler, neither man even read the 2002 consultants’ report, or, it seems, had the training needed to understand it.

But this should not be surprising. As Lawrence Solomon reported in the Financial Post earlier this month, only 10% of native technicians examined by the federal Auditor-General meet provincial certification requirements. No surprise: The labour force on reserves is among the most poorly skilled in the Western world. As Gough writes, the few residents who do get any education flee and never return.

The lesson here is that the water problems in Kashechewan have little to do with “abuse and neglect.” All the money in the world won’t help if you don’t have a functioning society with a real economy (not a make-believe one fuelled by government handouts) and an educated work force.

Even those politicians who understand all this will typically defend our inhumane aboriginal policy on the basis that grinding poverty is the price of sustaining “authentic” aboriginal culture. As horrible as life in Kashechewan may be, the theory goes, the reserve puts a needed glass bubble over the ancient hunter-gatherer civilization contained within.

But here is where Ms. Gough’s narrative is especially informative. By her own account, she arrived in Kashechewan with the classic mindset of a bien-pensant white interloper ─ intoxicated by the romantic myths surrounding Canada’s natives. Yet when she tried to teach native children about their culture, village elders scolded her for endorsing paganism. Her experience also blew away the conventional depiction of natives as inveterate environmentalists. “On the reserve, open sewage was emptied into the streams; garbage was thrown all over the place,” she writes. “And every year, on Dead Dog Day, stray dogs were shot and thrown into the river, turning the water an alarming, brilliant red.”

Even in faraway Kashechewan, in other words, we have already destroyed the aboriginals’ culture ─ through television, guns, the English language, packaged food, schools, hospitals, ATVs and Christianity. None of these genies can be put back in the bottle, even if natives wanted to ─ which, of course, they don’t.

This week, First Ministers are scheduled to meet in Kelowna, B.C., for a confab on native issues. Mr. Martin is expected to make a great show of his planned aboriginal spending boost. And he will do his best to convince everyone that all the horrible problems of native reserves can be cured if the federal government spends, say, $8.5-billion on aboriginal programs, instead of the existing $8-billion. And the next time a scandal turns up, it will be $9-billion, and then $9.5-billion and so on.

It all conforms to that popularly accepted definition of insanity ─ doing the same thing over and over, each time expecting a different result. It would be almost funny ─ if hundreds of thousands of aboriginal lives weren’t being ruined in the process.

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