"It's an absolute disgrace. It's the single biggest moral issue we face as a country." So says Paul Martin about the state of life on Native reserves in Canada.
Well, it might not be the single biggest moral issue—I can think of one that is bigger—but, that aside, his words ring true. The state of life on native reserves in this country is an absolute disgrace. The idea that people in our land should suffer from the indignities experienced by those living on reserves—especially northern reserves—is shameful and cause for great national consternation. They are, as Mr. Martin puts it, "pictures of tragedy."
In this sense, Bob Rae's point in question period is well-put. The state of humanity on the native reserves—the squalor, the addictions, the abuse, the lack of basic amenities like clean water and a warm house, the rampant suicide—in Canada is "an embarrassment to the reputation of the entire country."
But his next point is a complete non-starter. In response to Harper's disappointment with the results of the $90 million sent to Attawapiskat over the last five years, Rae responded: "It would seem that the implication of what the Prime Minister is saying is that it is the people of Attawapiskat who are responsible for the problems they are facing."
Of course the people of Attawapiskat are responsible for the problems they're facing. To suggest otherwise is to suggest that they are somehow less than fully human; it degrades their humanity and has more than a whiff of colonialism to it.
But, let's be charitable to Mr. Rae and blame the mass media for his urge to make complex situations overly simple for the sake of scoring political points. It is true that the people of Attawapiskat aren't the only ones responsible for the problems they're facing. The problems at Attawapiskat—and reserves across the country—are a complex cauldron of abuse, mismanagement, moral waffling, lies, and other foul ingredients put into the pot by a variety of cooks, including the federal government.
The question in the face of this is: what is to be done? What type of action is needed, by whom, and towards what end?
This question, as I've said previously, cannot be answered simply with "more funding or better administered programs, but [requires] hard conversations about whose conception of the good is better." The problem, as a young person recently noted in John Ivison's column, is that there is "apathy and no world view" among those who lead, and this bleeds all the way down.
This is not to suggest that the answer will be black or white, or that it will be simple—fixing deeply rooted social problems requires complex analysis of structures and institutions. It also requires hard questions about how such things shape human behaviour for good or ill—what conditions help sustain or work against the virtues that make communities successful or problematic.
If we are ever to overcome—together—the shame of degraded human dignity that is so present among large communities of Canadian people, we need to call out those behaviours and structures which contribute to it, as well as the worldviews which fuel them.