One solution for the North

One solution for the North

The greatest resource of Manitoba’s troubled North is the one most ignored and overlooked.

Dorothy Dobbie

Dorothy Dobbie Issues in the News
Dorothy Dobbie
Issues in the News

Some 70,000 people live in this vast region, most of them indigenous. This is a people forced into a modern world they are not well equipped for. Born to live in this undeveloped region, they are taught to accept an unfamiliar way of life as their own; they are expected to eat food from far away, use technologies that are foreign to their experience, and adapt to a city-based culture they cannot even imagine, even after viewing shadows on their imported television sets.

The people adjust and try to adapt, accepting soul-killing handouts in lieu of useful employment. They send their kids to school to learn the basics of a foreign culture, although it’s hard to see what the history of a European war has to do with the flock of geese that filled the sky yesterday or the fact that the muskrats have abandoned last season’s home. The kids are forced to sponge up many facts and data that hold nothing of value to how they live, but what they learn often sets up longings and dissatisfaction with lives that hold so little promise of fullfilment.

The Port of Churchill, with grain elevators, dominates the harbour and the economy of Churchill.
The Port of Churchill, with grain elevators, dominates the harbour and the economy of Churchill.

There are very few jobs. What is offered in some locations is temporary – construction projects end, so skills learned have no ongoing outlet. Getting out of their communities is all they can hope for, but this brings separation from family and familiar things. And when they do get out, there is no end to the line-up of people ready to corrupt them.

Creating jobs that serve the community

But what if some could stay and if, in that staying, a life could be built that would help provide occupation and meaning for others in the community?

Why are our northern people not engaged in enterprise?

We have spent hundreds of millions of dollars trying to create artificial economies in the North. To date, the only one that is burgeoning is the tourist industry in Churchill and it is just getting its feet wet after many years of self-generated promotion. Now government agencies are climbing aboard the bandwagon, waving their flag at the head of the parade. Churchill is still raw and untamed, but in spite of this, thousands of tourists find it on their destination bucket list, not for its luxury spas and accommodation, but for its authenticity.

Think of the hundreds of millions of dollars that have gone into building inappropriate housing and schools that graduate kids who are barely literate according to southern standards, so the problem is not lack of money to help aboriginal people develop their own enterprises. Lack of appropriate consultation and partnership in setting useful curriculum is. What skills do you need to operate a business of any kind? What do you need to operate a tourist attraction?

Churchill has capitalized on the recent upsurge of people wanting to take a northern safari.
Churchill has capitalized on the recent upsurge of people wanting to take a northern safari.

Building your own tourism industry

A clue to one possibility comes from China by way of a wilderness tourist who spoke about his experience to a local Winnipeg hotel manager of Chinese origin. The tourist had spent $25,000 for a weekend of what, to him, was sheer bliss. There he was, up in the boreal forest, hunting and fishing with nobody around for hundreds of miles. What an experience for someone whose existence is shared with a billion others, where every valley has been travelled, every mountain explored. Unfortunately, the money this traveller spent went to an American fishing and hunting lodge without a penny going to the community. How much better if the traveller had been able to share this experience with someone who knows the land and could interpret its nuances in a manner that would expand understanding and delight.

Flying lessons would be one useful skill so you could hire your own people to ferry visitors in and out. How to run an airport would be another. Mechanical skills would be helpful, and of course you could use those construction skills you got working for “the man” back in the day to build whatever amenities you need. Cooking skills seem to be built into the culture, and the more local foods you can include the better the tourists will like it.

A short time ago we learned that a group of very young children burned the Northwest Store to the ground in Shamattawa. This begs the question, why was this the Northwest Store? Why isn’t it a store owned by local people or by the band?

Why aren’t we teaching our Aboriginal people things that will help them to build their own better lives? Why can’t they build their own houses instead of paying some southern contractor to create housing that doesn’t meet the requirements of a northern climate? We provide incubators for business down south – why not up north for local people? Has anyone ever asked them what they think of the idea?

Would this work for you?

Well, I am asking. Would this work for some of you, do you think? Provided with the right resources, could you begin to create enterprises that would allow you to build your own economy? What barriers would there be? What government regulations and practices would we have to change to make this possible? How can you partner with folks of longer experience to get you started sooner?

Seems to me that starting local enterprises would be a far better answer than building casinos to steal your money and ruin your life. Aboriginal people in some jurisdictions operate all sorts of businesses already, so why not here in Manitoba?

I know that these folks can run successful businesses. Just look at the Aboriginal Centre, now Neeginan Centre, in Winnipeg.

Perhaps the time has come

Currently, rumour has it that several Aboriginal bands are trying to negotiate a deal to buy the port at Churchill and the train that feeds it. I hear that it is the Mathias Columb band that is leading the pack and I wish them all the very best of fortune. But the port is a federal responsibility.

Ottawa has put untold billions into other ports. It’s time for them to step up the plate on this one. It was a bizarre idea to sell it in the first place. But the bands could own the railway and run the port after the feds put up the money to bring it up to 21st century standards. Why not?

I hear other aboriginal groups are also working on a deal to buy into an airline. I have an aboriginal friend who is scouting out the possibility of buying up or creating small hydro installations to bring power to isolated places across Canada. These enterprises would be owned by Aboriginal communities.

It is always a good idea to build on one’s strengths instead of looking for imported and artificial ways to solve problems. And the best place to start an economy is among those who live nearby, then to move on to wider fields to sell your surpluses.

Helping northern indigenous people to build economies to meet their own basic needs is one step in the right direction toward reconciliation.

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