Until now, aboriginal leaders appear to resist any attempts to change their specialized system — a separate legal regime, with transfer payments and special entitlements, that applies only to aboriginal people. The lion’s share of the transfer payments and special entitlements go to reserve residents.
These leaders maintain it is necessary for all aboriginal people to have this separate system in order to preserve aboriginal culture. They insist that reserves must stay, so that aboriginal people can carry on living as their ancestors did with the same customs and way of life.
I believe they are wrong.
In the first place, reserves are artificial creations of the federal government. They were meant to be temporary sanctuaries for aboriginal people until they could become full participants in the life of the country.
After that, reserves would no longer be necessary. That was a time when "special entitlements" might have consisted of a blanket and $5 a year.
If only those benefits had remained in place, reserves would eventually have morphed into ordinary rural municipalities. It was the long list of benefits dreamed up by well-intentioned politicians and judges, believing they were helping a desperately poor people, that virtually cemented reserves in place as seemingly permanent institutions.
Free housing and no income tax or GST — regardless of income level — along with a grab bag of special hunting and fishing rights, are some of the benefits.
Isolating people on reserves was a bad idea from the start. It prevented aboriginal people from naturally adapting to a rapidly changing world. In an age before reserves and government money, aboriginal culture naturally adapted to change, such as the fur trade and then the buffalo economy. It was only the isolation, and then the infusion of money from Ottawa, that froze reserves in time, creating today’s dependent and deeply troubled communities.
Reserves also have very little to do with traditional life. In the past, aboriginal people in this part of the continent were semi-nomadic hunter-gatherers. The work ethic was extremely strong, as survival depended on it.
There were no such things as welfare or transfer payments, or any of the social pathologies, such as drug and alcohol abuse, that inevitably afflict dependent communities. Pre-contact aboriginal culture thrived for thousands of years in a harsh environment. Today’s reserves bear little resemblance to those strong communities. Reserve culture and the aboriginal culture of the past are two very different things.
Then what is the real reason for the strong resistance of the aboriginal leaders to any real change in the status quo? How much of it has to do with the transfer payments from Ottawa and money?Bottom line, many aboriginal leaders are doing very well financially under the present system. On reserves, the powerful families and their associates form a ruling elite — an oligarchy — that controls the billions of dollars that flow to them from Ottawa every year like clockwork.
They also enjoy free housing and no income tax regardless of how large their salaries grow. These benefits are paid for by ordinary Canadians, many of whom earn far less than these leaders.
The ordinary Canadians whose taxes pay for the system must then use their own after-tax dollars to deal with their living expenses, including housing and their children’s tuition.
Lest this be considered some kind of racist diatribe targeting aboriginal people, let me point to the fact that probably at least as many of the people who have attached themselves to the aboriginal money pipeline from Ottawa are not even aboriginal.
The partnership between aboriginal leaders and my former profession — the legal profession — has been incredibly lucrative for both. During the residential school claim stage, one law firm alone billed more than $50 million in fees. There are lawyers who are paid handsome salaries just to find "victims" — both real and imagined — and obtain large settlements for them (taking a healthy chunk for their firms, of course).
And the victim industry shows no sign of slowing down. The lawyers who are only too eager to appear before the steady series of aboriginal inquiries, or those who put their creative powers to work in the thriving treaty rights game, hope this largesse lasts forever.
There are many others besides lawyers: "consultants" who attach themselves to aboriginal causes; contractors who build and rebuild "free houses" on reserves; entire universities that utter not a critical word about this corruption — all want the money to keep flowing.
But what of the great majority of poor aboriginal people who are living on reserves and in cities — how do they benefit from this mountain of money?
The answer is that they don’t. If you are on welfare, paying no income tax is of little value. If your children don’t make it through school, free university education is irrelevant. If you are caught in the welfare trap, none of this helps you. Health entitlements, such as free antibiotics, don’t spare you from belonging to what is by far the unhealthiest demographic in the country.
The stark reality is that these are the very people who need the help and they are not getting it. Education and job training are desperately needed to help these people escape from their state of dependency by entering the workforce. Many other Canadians who are not aboriginal also fall into this category. But sufficient money is not there to help them because it is being siphoned off by people who are financially secure.
The aboriginal leaders and their cohorts resist any attempt to focus government assistance on the people at the bottom. They rely on the myth that all aboriginal people need special help. It is not true. A disproportionate amount of aboriginal people need special assistance, but the growing aboriginal middle class does not.
» Brian Giesbrecht was a provincial court judge from 1976 until 2007. He is retired. His column was recently published by the Winnipeg Free Press.