This column was published in the February 25, 2013 Christian Courier and is reprinted here with the permission of the Christian Courier

The Idle No More movement has focused attention on Canada’s First Nations, highlighting the difficult circumstances in which too many of them live. While the grassroots protests have provoked sympathy and a genuine desire for reconciliation and healing in some Canadians, in others it seems to have given cover for deeply held negative beliefs and stereotypes about First Nations peoples.

In a modern liberal democracy such as Canada, racism seldom rears its ugly head in the form of overt discrimination against people. Instead, it is far more likely to be couched in generalizations about an entire group or class of people based on so-called objective evidence. Many of these stereotypes and myths about First Nations are now circulating, and can make it difficult for a simple observer to know who is right and who is wrong. But with a closer look, many of these myths and accusations can also be debunked for what they are – harmful stereotypes that arise from an inability or lack of desire to love and care for our Aboriginal neighbours.

All they want is money

One of the most prevalent myths circulating right now is that all First Nations people want is money. They want us to pay them billions of dollars while they contribute nothing.

Actually, what sparked the Idle No More protests is not money, but the federal government ignoring treaty rights and constitutional obligations to consult First Nations people on matters that affect them. The two budget implementation bills of 2012 played a big role, as the Conservative government made significant changes to resource development approval and protection of Canada’s waterways which will impact traditional Aboriginal lifestyles and could have a very harmful impact on the environment.

Essentially what First Nations people are demanding is that the government speak to them before making decisions that affect them. In a democracy, that shouldn’t be too much to ask.

If First Nations people were demanding more money, however, it would not be unreasonable. The federal government has jurisdiction over all programs and services for First Nations people, whereas the provinces hold jurisdiction in a number of areas for non-Aboriginal Canadians. When the total amount of spending on services to Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Canadians is compared, Aboriginal Canadians come out significantly behind. And in fact, they are falling further behind, since the federal government has capped spending growth at two percent per year, regardless of inflation and population growth. In comparison, federal spending on social services for other Canadians is growing at three percent per year, while federal spending on health care for other Canadians is growing at six percent per year.

Bad governance

Another common argument is that First Nations are the source of their own problems – because their governance is so bad. This is to tar all 600 plus First Nations bands with the high-profile struggles of a few. But before we cast blame, we need to be clear that problems with governance and problems with programs and services on-reserve are not the same thing.

To be the chief of a small First Nations band in a rural or remote community is much like being a small-town mayor – with one major exception: in addition to typical municipal services, chiefs and councils are also responsible for delivery of education, health care, social services and infrastructure including housing, roads, water and wastewater. As if that list isn’t daunting enough, the funds for these services come from federal government contribution agreements that the Auditor-General of Canada has criticized as not being flexible enough and accompanied by a very heavy reporting burden.

But if a mayor in a small, rural or remote community was struggling with the expertise required to deliver all necessary services with limited funds and a significant paper burden, we would construct ways to provide support and training, through the Federation of Canadian Municipalities or through federal and provincial programs. First Nations communities currently receive that kind of support (although not as much as they need) from Tribal Councils, which provide a regional group of First Nations with professional expertise that may not be available at the local level. Unfortunately, the Conservative government has significantly slashed funding to these Tribal Councils.

All Canadians are equal

One common response to the Idle No More protests has been “What would happen if non-Aboriginal Canadians were blocking major highways, railways or border crossings?” One might equally ask “What if a non-Aboriginal town hadn’t had safe drinking water in over a decade?” Too many First Nations peoples have lived in Third World conditions despite our G8 economy. Instead of allowing racist assumptions to blame the victims, we need to start asking ourselves whether we truly believe all people are equal, and if so, why we allow such conditions to persist in a country blessed with such a wealthy economy.

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