All regions share a national disgrace.
by Don Cayo
By the time fur traders reached the West, the white man’s diseases — not to mention a few of his musket balls — had already pushed the Beothuks, Canada’s easternmost natives, to the brink of extinction.
When plainsmen were still stalking buffalo on foot, the Mi’kmaq and Maliseet had been sharing — and losing — their East Coast rivers and coves and hunting grounds for eight or 10 generations.
When prairie reserves were just being set up, Maritime ones were vanishing as squatters crowded poor Indians into ever-smaller islands of poverty. The consequence is that in New Brunswick today, for example, 8,000 people are crowded onto a dozen small parcels of poor land — enough land, in total, for a mere handful of prairie farms.
So the story of colonization is not merely different down East, it’s also longer. It’s 464 years since Jacques Cartier wrote about first contact with Mi’kmaqs — and no doubt natives and European fishermen had been trading for decades before that.
Each unique quirk of history creates a different building block for modern-day reality. So life today for a “typical” native person in the Maritimes is quite different than in the West.
A lot of my fellow Maritimers would superciliously tell you that we don’t have the “Indian problem” that seems, to our eyes, endemic in the West. I don’t agree. We don’t have, I would argue, as visible a problem. But we have woes that, though different from those in the West, are all too real.
Demographics help hide our problem from our view. The Maritimes have far fewer native people than the West, and a far higher percentage of them live on reserve. So most of our native people live, in effect, out of sight of the mainstream, and we don’t have the urban ghettos that we see when we visit Regina, Winnipeg or Vancouver.
Then, too, a lot of our native people don’t “look native.” Many are fair-skinned; some are even blond and blue-eyed. Thus, many who leave the reserve blend invisibly into productive roles in the broader community, and any who happen to be destitute don’t attract notice to their race.
Finally, the natural beauty of a lot of our reserves — most of them nestled on rivers or sea coasts — belies the ugliness of the despair and want within. For a variety of ills do fester beneath their facade of nice big band buildings and neat little homes.
While natives who leave the reserve may have an easier time integrating here than in some other parts of Canada, those who stay seem to have it worse. In New Brunswick’s nine reserves, for example, you can count on your fingers the number of people who find work off-reserve. And it’s not for want of trying. One chief, for example, offered to pay the wages of band members for a trial period if local businesses would give them a chance to prove their worth. Scores of employers were asked to take a band member on. Only one said yes. He hired a part-time waitress.
So too many native people sit home idle on too little land, most of it fit only for scrub. Little wonder, then, that more than three in four reserve dwellers in the Maritimes draw welfare each year. That’s the worst rate in Canada — half again what you find on reserves in most regions.
The results are predictable and tragic. Dependency. Despondency. Dysfunction.
At Big Cove, the largest reserve in New Brunswick with 1,700 people, seven young men committed suicide in 1994 alone. More have died at their own hands since, three in the last 12 months.
Yet to read the papers or listen to the news, you’d be hard-pressed most days to notice anything wrong. Except for an occasional flurry over the suicides, Maritime reserves sure don’t attract much national attention, and locally and regionally the coverage is spotty at best.
So these problems, like the reserves and the native people themselves, remain hidden and ill-understood. It doesn’t help that our natives themselves are sorely divided, their communities rife with jealous groups that claim to speak for the masses but in fact represent just a few special interests. It doesn’t help that they’re out-gunned and out-manoeuvred on the national stage by groups and politicians from areas where natives are more numerous and their politics more advanced. It doesn’t help to be from the Maritimes, a region that’s often a mere afterthought in national policy-making.
Thus Western and Northern decisions and Western and Northern decision-makers tend to dominate discussions of native affairs in this country. But don’t let this geographical imbalance of voices imply that unresolved native issues aren’t found nation-wide. Don’t let smug Maritimers tell you that it’s not our problem, too. Fact is the plight of native people, with so many issues unresolved after 500 years, is a disgrace. And it’s truly a national disgrace — one of the things we Canadians have in common from coast to coast to coast.