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- Created: Friday, 13 September 2013 13:10
- Published: Friday, 13 September 2013 13:10
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Opinion: The Rotary Club and ordinary Canadians have done more to help aboriginal groups than bloated federal bureaucracy has done in 20 years
By Michael McCarthy, Special to The Vancouver Sun
It’s back to school time, which means kids across Canada are eagerly asking for high-tech school supplies, mothers are looking at new shoes and dads are thinking about maybe signing up to coach sports. Except on Canada’s aboriginal reserves, where eagerness for the future doesn’t exist, hope is just another four-letter word, and an overwhelming sense of ennui pervades all.
Aboriginal journalist Richard Wagamese defines ennui among native children as “about a ton heavier and a lot deadlier than simple boredom. It means a lifelong sort of tiredness, an unrelenting feeling of nothingness. It means you give up trying, dreaming or seeing yourself doing something better.”
It may not be illegal, but for children to give up entirely on their own future is truly a crime.
Who is to blame? Well, to start, look at INAC (Indian and Northern Affairs Canada, also known as Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada) and the Indian Act, an outdated piece of colonial legislation passed by paternalistic politicians back in 1876 and still sitting on the shelf like a stuffed Victorian albatross. Getting rid of the Indian Act is like trying to reform the Senate or combat climate change. Everyone talks about it, but nobody does anything.
Indian Affairs, Canada’s fifth-largest bureaucracy and growing, has been an utter failure during the past 20 years in improving the lives of the 430,000 status Indians on reserves. Despite having had its funding to First Nations capped at a two per cent increase per year since 1996, INAC has seen its full-time staff balloon from 3,300 employees in 1995 to 5,137 today. Mention INAC to aboriginal people on most reserves and you may get a punch in the nose.
There’s also an army of consultants, treaty lawyers and accountants who have collectively sucked hundreds of millions of dollars out of First Nations and federal government coffers. More than 1,500 contracts have been awarded to various consultants by INAC, contracts now eating up roughly $125 million worth of taxpayers’ money each year. Overall, the federal government spends about $7 billion a year on First Nations, not a penny of which has altered the lives of our most marginalized people in a positive way.
Fed up with bureaucratic inaction and political posturing, the Idle No More movement has sprung up as a grassroots protest, calling for ordinary people to get involved to protest the lack of significant change to a paternalistic system that treats native people like children. Their efforts have generated a lot of headlines, but reaction from politicians and bureaucrats has been the same as ever. All talk, no action.
Now, a quiet “Idle No More” movement is afoot from concerned Canadians in urban areas who want to know how they can help aboriginal people in remote communities through simple and meaningful actions that don’t add to a bloated bureaucracy. This quiet initiative founded two years ago by B.C’s own aboriginal Lt.-Gov. Steven Point (now retired) is called Write to Read.
An informal partnership of concerned citizens, it has no bureaucracy (W2R is not even incorporated as a non-profit society) but has accomplished more, working in good faith with almost two-dozen First Nations communities in remote regions of British Columbia, than an entire army of Ottawa bureaucrats has managed in 20 years. Trouble is, given the modesty of many of its members, you’ve never heard of it.
Point’s aide de camp when lieutenant-governor was a former police officer named Bob Blacker, who also happened to be a Rotarian, a district governor of almost 100 Rotary Clubs in B.C. When Point put out the call for help regarding his literacy initiative, Blacker pulled out his little black book. If there is one thing that Rotarians share, it is a strong sense of community. Rotary Clubs all over the province put out a call to their members to donate books. They were swamped.
Blacker then dropped into Britco Structures, whom he’d heard had some modular buildings left over from the Olympics. The company president was a Rotarian. Britco would be happy to donate a trailer to be used as a library. Then another and another, now committing to donate 10 modular units.
What good are libraries without computers? Calls were made, and London Drugs and Hewlett Packard came through. How to get anything delivered to remote reserves? Well, BC Ferries have been most generous and supportive. So, too, have been the Coast Guard and RCMP.
The concept is growing. Vancouver architect Scott Kemp volunteered to work with the Oweekeno (Rivers Inlet) people, who thought a basketball court would be most useful for their young people. Kemp has designed a four-season sportsplex. The UBC School of Dentistry agreed to hold dental clinics on some remote reserves. Construction and forest companies have donated materials. Bookstores have offered new books. All quietly accomplished under the radar.
When the general store and library in Bella Bella burned down this summer, Write to Read was first off the mark. Britco will be donating a modular building for that community as well, and suppling it with books, computers, Wi-Fi, printers and air-conditioning.
Photographers, journalists and a webmaster have also chipped in their skills. In-kind donations have reached nearly a million dollars to date. Everything accomplished has been on a zero budget, because Write to Read has received no funding from any source. Thanks to an almost pathological urge on the part of Rotarians to remain humble and modest about all their many accomplishments, their involvement in this initiative has received no publicity.
Those who study positive social change in developing cultures understand the priority lies in literacy. Giving young people access to books, computers, ideas, training and mentorship allows them to direct their own future. From literacy springs employment, and employment generates cultural change. The key to reducing aboriginal poverty in Canada over time lies not in increasing welfare rates or the maintenance of the nanny state or hiring more bureaucrats, but by giving aboriginal children the training, tools and mentorship whereby they can help themselves.
Picture this: A young girl sits at a computer, the mouse in her right hand racing across the pad and the cursor dancing across the computer screen. Over her shoulder peers her mother, computer illiterate but excited. The child is playing video games, but programs designed by non-profit organization Success by Six, to teach aboriginal kids self-esteem along with literacy.
Soon dad wonders what’s going on and wanders over from the council chambers where he has been talking politics with the band council, most of them waiting for their welfare cheques to arrive (or pay cheques if they are on the band payroll). The library has suddenly become a gathering place, a de facto community centre, a subtle power shift.
Sound like fantasy? The above scenario is already happening in almost two-dozen reserves throughout B.C. Newly appointed Lt.-Gov. Judy Guichon and her staff at Government House are honouring Point’s legacy by maintaining a literacy project that does more than just build libraries — it builds bridges between British Columbians. Several libraries will be opened by the end of 2013, and plans are afoot for many other construction projects in 2014.
Already involved are Rotary Clubs from Williams Lake, North Vancouver, Langley, Steveston, Chemainus, Ladysmith, Qualicum Beach, Parksville, Chilliwack, Surrey, Saanich and Port McNeill. First Nations partners include Toosey, Halalt, Penelakut, Kingcome Inlet, Old Massett at Haida Gwaii, Tsawout, Rivers Inlet, Yunesitin, Kluskus, Nazko, Skatin, Bella Bella and Lheidi T’ennah and the list is growing.
Blacker has received inquiries from Rotarians in Alberta, across Canada the U.S. and Europe asking how his blueprint can be copied elsewhere. The Government House Foundation in B.C. that supports the lieutenant-governor’s programs is offering tax receipts to all those who donate.
For many, September is a time of energy and optimism, the beginning of an exciting new year of hope. No child should ever have his or her dreams for the future dashed just because of a lack of hope, books, computers or the knowledge that folks in big cities don’t care about aboriginal kids in remote areas. Canadians are good people and they do care about aboriginal issues, but to date they have been denied a chance to get directly involved.
Every child should have the right to read. Forget about the fat cats in Ottawa and politics that go nowhere except down a rabbit hole. Simply log on to the Write to Read website to learn more about how you can get directly involved. Building your own future is the Canadian dream and concerned citizens can now personally help make that dream happen. For more information log on to www.writetoreadproject.org.
Michael McCarthy is a travel writer whose stories frequently appear in Postmedia newspapers.