It was a blustery day in winter Winnipeg, temperatures in the minus 20s, wind blowing tufts of gritty snow in eyes and mouths as Glenn and I were returning home at seven in the morning after an hour-long workout at the Re-Fit Centre. Suddenly, the traffic jammed at a usually lazy corner in Winnipeg’s affluent Tuxedo area. We soon learned why; there was a demonstration at the corner lights and only one or two cars at a time were getting through.
“Get lost you lazy bums,” shouted a raucous voice. “Go back to the hellhole you came from.” There was more like this and the language was not quite as mild as this. The demonstrators were being upstaged by an anti-demonstration demonstrator.
I opened my car window to see better. Someone thrust a box at me with the question, “Wanna a cookie? Have a cookie.”
A well-dressed crowd
I didn’t “wanna” cookie, which I politely declined, but I did want to see who was staging the event. There were signs saying “Idle No More”, the emblem of the current aboriginal protests. It was hard to tell otherwise because there was not a single aboriginal face in the crowd of well-dressed protesters. The white people, the rich white people according to the designer coats they were wearing, had stolen the show, and like the Occupy movement, there was just as little pointedness to the demonstration.
No one was saying, “Let’s get a new deal for the Indians,” or “Put an end to hardship on reserves” or even, “Get rid of the Indian Act”. No one was saying anything much, just stopping traffic and offering cookies.
The protests continue. Today, Jan. 16, according to CTV news, “First Nation leaders and activists” blocked the CN rail line near Portage la Prairie. “Percy Ballentine,” they reported, “a residential school survivor, said he was willing to put his life on the line to try and protect the environment, his children, grandchildren and all who live in Canada.” All fine sentiments, but little beef. It’s that kind of movement it seems.
So where is or what is the beef? This round of protests seems to be just one more in a long line of these activities that spring up generationally but never change anything much. They all more or less, white or aboriginal, say “The people are discontented. They feel the huge gap between the very rich and the barely staying alive.”
Clearly, the demonstrators want answers, even if they don’t know the right questions.
As the parliamentary secretary for Indian and Northern Affairs for two years, I had ample time to study the topic and to think about solutions.
Critical to the issue is the welfare system. Welfare destroys initiative. It kills pride. It extinguishes life. It doesn’t matter who you are, the impact of welfare is the same. The federal government and the First Nations people of this country have to first get their heads around that fact, then negotiate a new deal that is based on transactions that encourage mutual respect.
We have already agreed that we took the land and that we should pay for it, but how is the question. The answer lies in changing the debilitating, paternalistic system we have now, where we “give” resources (resentfully in most cases) and “dole out” money that we have “earned” through our hard labour.
Pay for their resources
Instead, why don’t we simply pay for what we use? We could add a royalty on all raw materials coming out of the land from now on. The royalty could even be assessed to the company (often foreign) that extracts the resource so the taxpayer burden (and the stigma of welfare) would be removed from the money. The entitlements would then be elevated to the same level as any fee for product earnings. First Nations people could become billionaires as a group, and more power to them.
So I say, send the white people and their cookies home. Decide on a plan of action and what you want. Face the fact that you have to begin to dismantle the Indian Act, but do it on your initiative, at a comfortable pace, bit by bit, until you have once again established your independence and freedom.
Idle no more? Good for you. But make this round of restlessness really count.