By Greg Quinn
Gina Bouchie raises her infant son Lewis in a home with no running water and a slop-bucket toilet while a wood stove keeps them warm through the Canadian winter.
She worries about her food budget halfway through each month, with the welfare check letting her stock a fridge with little more than a few eggs, some slices of processed cheese, frozen dinners and diabetes medicine.
Bouchie’s situation isn’t unusual among Canada’s 1.4 million aboriginals, one of the youngest and fastest-growing segments of the population. While the government promotes resource projects -- C$650 billion ($585 billion) of work over the next decade -- as a path to aboriginal prosperity, they’re little help to isolated communities like Bouchie’s.
“I am in kind of the lowest category of all,” Bouchie, 37, said from Berens River, Manitoba, where she has to go across the yard to her parents’ house to bathe and make phone calls. “I live pretty crappy, trying to make the best of it.”
Bouchie’s house, shared with her partner Greg, would be unrecognizable to most Canadians. Drinking water comes from a six-foot high plastic tank just inside the front door, not pipes. The toilet is a pail emptied near the riverbank each day, even as January temperatures fall close to 40 degrees below zero Celsius (minus 40 Fahrenheit). While policy makers worry about Canada’s housing market and the risk of a bubble among Toronto and Vancouver condominiums, 45 percent of aboriginals on reservations said in the 2006 census their dwellings needed major repairs.
“I keep my washroom as clean as I can and it gets thrown out every night, but it’s still not the best way anybody would want to live,” Bouchie said.
The only way to drive to the reservation of about 1,000 people on Lake Winnipeg’s eastern shore is over an ice road that’s open for a few weeks each year. People and supplies arrive primarily by air, driving up food costs.
Aboriginals, also known as First Nations, Indians or Inuit, lived in the territory that became Canada centuries before contact with Europeans began around 1500, according to a 1996 Royal Commission report. Settlers from Europe depended on aboriginals for survival for at least 200 years before a push to assimilate created what the report called “a legacy of brokenness.” Even the name Canada is based on a misunderstanding, as French explorers confused an aboriginal word for “village” with “nation.”
About one-quarter of Canada’s indigenous people -- more than 360,000 -- live on reservations, lands set aside through treaties as European colonists settled throughout Canada. The rate of diabetes is three to five times higher for aboriginals than the general Canadian population, according to the Assembly of First Nations, the country’s main aboriginal advocacy group. Aboriginals can expect to live about five years less than non-aboriginals, according to Statistics Canada projections, and the median income of aboriginals between 25 and 54-years-old was 33 percent less than non-aboriginals, Statistics Canada data from 2005 show.
Such living conditions sparked criticism for the government from a United Nations envoy who visited in October. “Canada faces a crisis when it comes to the situation of indigenous peoples of the country,” James Anaya said as his visit ended.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper is betting on resource development as a key to improve aboriginal living standards. He’s accelerated reviews of projects such as Enbridge Inc.’s proposed Northern Gateway pipeline that would send crude from Alberta’s oil sands to the Pacific coast, supplying Asian markets and providing jobs and royalty payments to local tribes.
These developments offer “an unprecedented opportunity for aboriginal people and their communities to join the mainstream of the Canadian economy,” Harper said at a Jan. 6 event in Vancouver. “Without which, in my judgment, we won’t make progress on all of the other things we need to make progress on in those communities.”
Many aboriginals responded to the government’s drive to speed resource development with protests. The Idle No More movement grew last year out of anger about how First Nations people see the government failing in its legal duty to consult on developments that affect native lands.
Enbridge’s Northern Gateway, which would cross aboriginal lands, has drawn protests and more are expected after the project was conditionally approved by Canadian regulators. Those protests have been backed by some non-aboriginals, notably Canadian musician Neil Young, who organized concerts to support tribes opposed to developing the oil sands.
Difficult living conditions and the lack of benefits from Canada’s resource boom were catalysts for Idle No More, said Pamela Palmater, academic director of the Centre in Indigenous Governance at Toronto’s Ryerson University.
“That spark can’t be unlit now; you have community members all over the country who are demanding more from the government and their leaders,” said Palmater, who acted as an Idle No More spokeswoman. “It’s a new way for Canada and it will pave the way for us to change the things that aren’t working.”
The movement caught Ottawa’s attention. Harper hosted a meeting with First Nations leaders in January last year after Theresa Spence, an Idle No More supporter and chief of the Attawapiskat reserve in northern Ontario, went on a hunger strike.
The protests give “important guidance” on how to build aboriginal support, said Greg Rickford, the federal government minister responsible for the so-called Ring of Fire mineral deposits in remote areas of northern Ontario. Aboriginals “want to be a part” of the development and protesters “were just as disgruntled and disenfranchised with their own leadership,” he said.
Some leaders say the issues facing aboriginals are too complex to be solved by greater involvement in resource development. “There is no straight line” that links extraction of natural resources with a better life for young aboriginals, said Daniel Heath Justice, head of the First Nations Studies Program at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, and a Colorado-born Cherokee.
Companies looking to boost profit in the short term at the expense of the environment could create new conflicts, Justice said. “Whatever happens, it has to happen with indigenous buy-in,” he said. “Otherwise we are likely to see aboriginal challenges.”
Other roadblocks to increased aboriginal involvement are more basic. While companies such as Saskatoon, Saskatchewan-based Cameco Corp. have programs in place to hire more aboriginals, many would-be employees lack the education and skills needed for jobs such as welding and electrical work.
In Berens River, about three-quarters of adults haven’t graduated high school, Statistics Canada data show. A big hurdle is that there are no high schools on most reserves, forcing aboriginal children to leave home as young teenagers to get their diplomas. Berens River students might go to high school in Winnipeg, about 300 kilometers (185 miles) south by air, or in Cranberry Portage, about 380 kilometers northwest. Karen Batenchuk, the primary school vice principal at Berens River, says the lack of a local school is a major cause of the high dropout rate.
Former Prime Minister and Finance Minister Paul Martin, who built his reputation by cutting spending to wipe out Canada’s deficit in the 1990s, now advocates boosting outlays on education and is helping draft curriculum to improve the relationship between Canada and its aboriginals.
“These are human rights violations,” Martin said of current education policies. “We can turn what is really a tough education system around and make it work to everybody’s benefit.”
Funding is also a major concern for Shawn Atleo, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations. He estimates governments spend as much as C$7,000 less per year on aboriginal students than non-aboriginals, while only 20 libraries exist among 617 aboriginal communities.
Bernard Valcourt, Canada’s minister of aboriginal affairs and northern development, says “improving on-reserve education is a key priority.” In a Jan. 10 statement, Valcourt pointed to proposals the government made to first nations that will lead to better schooling for children on reserves, he says.
For now, the lack of education means young workers don’t have necessary skills, leaving Calgary-based companies such as Canadian Oil Sands Ltd. and ATCO Ltd., which builds housing for oil sands operations, eager to find employees.
Canadians aren’t keen to increase funding for aboriginal education. An Ipsos Reid survey of 1,023 Canadians conducted online last year found 64 percent agreed with the statement “Canada’s aboriginal peoples receive too much support from Canadian taxpayers,” and 62 percent said aboriginals are treated well by the government. Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada’s budget for the year that started in April was C$7.9 billion out of federal program spending of C$253 billion.
Aside from education, isolation is an issue. Bouchie, one of the most educated women in Berens River with diplomas in counseling and aboriginal translation, knows she will struggle to find steady work as Lewis, now 19 months old, grows up.
George Kemp, former chief at Berens River, said the lack of a road or nearby mineral riches makes economic development harder. His signature project was buying sawmill equipment for residents to build their own log cabins, replacing rotting dwellings.
“In remote communities, we are living in our own little world,” Kemp said. “The mental well-being of our people is not good; there is so much addiction, so much depression, suicide.”
“It’s a war zone, you know?” he said. “I’m surprised our people are that resilient.”
That resilience is personified by Joan Jack, a lawyer who lost to Atleo in the race to lead Canada’s main aboriginal organization.
Over three days, Jack drove her pickup truck down Berens River’s unpaved roads that bear no traffic signs or names, pointing out homes where she said drug dealers, bootleggers and addicts live.
“Crime and poverty are big business in Indian country,” Jack said. She decried the lack of opportunities for residents to work and earn a living the way most Canadians can. “We don’t want to govern our own oppression,” she said.
At the band council office, dozens of people lined up for their monthly welfare. Payments are C$371 a month for a single person, half in cash and half as a voucher that can only be used at local stores, to deter addicts from neglecting nutrition.
At a store owned by Jack’s brother, Dennis Alix, an employee tallied 199 food vouchers. Another store across town probably has a similar amount, he said, for a total roughly two times what he estimates is the reserve’s total employment.
The store’s prices would shock most urban Canadians. Transportation makes up C$5.75 of the C$10.39 cost for four-liters (1 gallon) of milk, more than double the price in major Canadian cities.
To be sure, the situation is not dire on all reserves, and some bands have found success building their economies. Nova Scotia’s Millbrook First Nation transformed land along a major highway. Along with the wooden shack where band members would sell trinkets, there’s now a hotel, movie theater, gas station and Tim Hortons donut shop where transport truckers fill up on diesel and coffee.
“The business community, they want to contact us because of our location, the relationship, and we just continue to build on it every year,” Chief Bob Gloade said in an interview at a pow-wow open to residents of nearby Truro.
Even with the isolation and limited prospects, many Berens River residents said they remain attached to their community through family ties and a belief that things can be improved.
Vice-principal Batenchuk’s house is an example of the community’s strong visiting culture. People came in and out of her house over the weekend, with or without an invitation, to share food, coffee and stories.
Grace Whiteway drew admiration with stories of her five children’s success -- all of whom have finished or are finishing high school.
When her children were old enough to be tempted to start skipping class, she put them on a strict schedule and made sure they enrolled in extra-curricular activities, just like her mother did for her.
“It wasn’t an option for us, we had to go to school every day,” she said. “Dwell on the negative stuff all the time and you are never going to do anything.”
Gina Bouchie wants to share the same lessons with Lewis, even as questions about his future brought her to tears. “I’m going to teach him to be independent and responsible,” she said. “To me, he can be anything he wants to be.”