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CONTRIBUTION · 17th April 2012
Richard Wagamese
Certain questions come back time after time in mainstream Canada's hunt for understanding of First Nations issues. One of the most important focuses on the nature of reserve communities. If the situation on Canada's First Nations reserves are so horrible, why don't the people just leave?

Canadians seem baffled by this. The images of squalor, poverty and rampant Third World conditions have confounded them. No one can imagine having to endure such despairing environments. Yet, year after year, another First Nation community emerges to shock them all over again. They listen while governments and First Nations leaders blame each other for the failure of the system.

It's wearying. Our nonnative neighbours can't understand why the situation exists in the first place and why it continues in the second. The image of a Canada that allows people to live in such grievous states does not jibe with the idea of a cultural mosaic founded on equality from sea to sea to sea.

Part of the answer lies in our national mythology. Schoolchildren are taught from their earliest venture into history that Canada was founded by the English and the French. Then they learn that Canada was discovered by non-native brave hearts navigating a vast and empty wilderness with the help of some nameless brown guys in canoes. Generations have learned the story of Canada this way.

While Prime Minister Stephen Harper asserts, "there is no evidence of colonialism in Canada," the fact that we know the names of Radisson and Groseilliers, Alexander Mackenzie and David Thompson, and not the names of the men who showed them the routes across the country, is sufficient enough to refute that. The national mythology of Canada largely ignores or misrepresents the founding role of native peoples.

Colonialism was, and still is, the dominant force in Canada. When you come from somewhere else and deem a territory terra nullius, or empty land, despite evidence to the contrary, and begin taking control of that land and its resources, that's colonialism. When you can justify that incursion, it allows you to easily justify the ones that follow. Colonialism is a process of incursion.

So Canada's history of colonialism is the history of attrition. Unlike the United States, where all-out Indian wars were declared, Canada lumbered along rather blandly, content to talk its way to the subjugation of peoples. Treaties were signed in the late 1800s packed with promises.

When the scope of those promises was realized, Canada created an act to manage them and a bureaucracy to oversee the implementation of the act. That's another thing missing from our history books.

Those treaty promises are still unfulfilled. In place of responding to its side of the treaties, Canada created more incursions in the form of residential schools, and the Indian Act itself, that made spirituality illegal, refused people the right to vote, gather politically or hire lawyers. Anything but the high cost of sticking to their side of the bargain.

So slowly, over a long progression of years, one by one, things got taken away from native people. Their lives atrophied. They became reliant on the Indian Act to tell them how to conduct their lives. As they watched the fabric of their lives unravel and disappear, they clung to the belief that the places they called home, the reserves, were the only places where they could cling to all that was lost.

When you're down to the last thing that represents a connection to who you are, when you've watched everything that was part and parcel of the story of your people get torn away, and you're left to stand with only one thing to hold onto, you will cling to that last thing with everything you have in order to not disappear. Any human being would. That's why native people won't leave reserves despite the dire circumstances - because they're the last thing they have.

They are not isolated ethnic enclaves, as has been suggested. They represent the tie to cultural ways, traditional teachings, spirituality, language, history, world view and self-identity. They are roots and they are a reminder that a people's sovereignty was never, and is not, for sale, barter or surrender. They are the essence of community, of tribalism, even when conditions seem the polar opposite of that.

Hope is an empowering quality. So are; trust, courage, honesty and loyalty. Native people on reserves exist in those values, and bear them forward into their days because they are the only signatories to the treaties, who have not forgotten their spirit and intent. Such is the difference between First Nations and Canada.

They choose to believe, as they did at signing, that this is a nation of honour and a land of promises made and promises kept. Only time and history will determine the truth of that.

The truth about colonialism
Comment by David on 17th April 2012
The status quo view of Canadian history is that this "great nation" was created by the hard work of non-natives. Meanwhile, the natives are viewed as lazy and unproductive. In reality, this nation was built by theft and fraud, not hard work. Virtually all of the founding fathers, including Sir John A., were convicted fraudsters. However, that didn't stop Canadians from re-electing him!

Conclusion: It doesn't require hard work to earn a profit when all your raw materials are FREE!