The Idle No More movement has been successful with raising awareness of aboriginal issues in Canada, and engaging the country in a conversation it rarely has. Although I have to say, reading the comments posted about Chief Spence and aboriginal people in general, have shown me a side of racism I often don’t see and tells me that the conversation must continue.
Racism is often rooted in misinformation.
Recently, I realized a few things in a conversation with a friend, who acts as an aboriginal advisor in his workplace. We have incredibly different perspectives. My friend lived some part of his life in an aboriginal community and spent a good part of his early years in residential schools. Despite some upheavals and hardships he managed to get to college and have a successful career in the public service. I like to play devil’s advocate with him to see how he will respond to different contentious issues that I raise. I think you will find some of his responses surprising and informative.
1. Why is so much of the aboriginal housing dilapidated and looks like no one cares for it?
He responded that the band will have homes built for people on low incomes. He gave me a couple of examples of families he knew who were on social assistance and could not afford to maintain the home that they were given let alone heat them. Furthermore, he spoke of split level homes that were equipped with electric heating way up north. How can the average person afford an electrical heating bill in a northern climate? Much of the housing is not built to withstand the low temperatures, causing huge maintenance problems in a short time. It just doesn’t make sense! It’s also poor planning.
2. Why can’t aboriginal people maintain some of the infrastructure that has been paid for by taxpayers?
My friend explained to me how a water treatment plant was set up in a community where they had previously had to rely on the river for water. The government came in and set it up and trained one person. Everything was great until that person left, leaving the community with a void. They trained another person to treat the water but he did not know how and so they went back to relying on the river.
Government projects usually don’t have any sustainability built into them. Sustainability in itself is a huge issue when it comes to aboriginal communities. If you have a federal government that changes every 4 years and a band administration every two, you have some real challenges. A lot of money goes down the drain, aboriginal and non-aboriginal people alike get upset. There are a lot of expectations and little when it comes to return on investment.
3. Why do aboriginal people get so defensive when we ask them to be financially accountable?
He did not deny their need to be accountable but then said that the government had not done their job, checking up on their books earlier. He said that the government could have taken a different approach and offered to send in some of their people to train them in accounting practices instead of accusing them of waste.
Approach is everything when it comes to working with aboriginal communities. Instead of “this is what you have to do”, a less patriarchal approach such as “what do you need from us to help you get these books in order”? could go over better.
If we rely on the media solely to help us form our relationships about “the other” we will undoubtedly have a very biased opinion. If you look at the responses my friend gave me, did you ever hear any of these in a newspaper, or on the news? Of course not! We are only getting a snippet of a big picture – filtered through hundreds of lenses before it reaches us, sometimes with only a speck of truth left to it.
Could this also be the experience of aboriginal people who may not have much exposure to non-aboriginal people to talk about these issues?
Evelina Silveira. President Diversity At Work