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Old 11-01-2005, 10:12 PM   #1
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Joblessness At Root Of Natives' Problems

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Joblessness At Root Of Natives' Problems



It was New Orleans all over again, but this time it was in Ontario's own
backyard. Bad water and a history of government inaction and indifference. And
when overdue government action did occur, it was driven not by careful
planning, but by negative newspaper headlines and heart-wrenching photos. In short,
by unrelenting bad press.
For years, the federal government ignored repeated pleas for help from
desperate leaders of the remote Kashechewan Reserve in Northern Ontario. On
Thursday, Ottawa finally sprang into action, promising not only to fix or replace
the water treatment system that created the Walkerton-like crisis, but to
relocate and rebuild the community from the ground up.
"The government of Canada will take any and all measures necessary to ensure
safe drinking water," said besieged Indian Affairs Minister Andy Scott, as
sick natives were being evacuated from Kashechewan by the Ontario government.
He also pledged to solve the problems of tainted water that plague as many
as 100 other native communities across Canada within the next three years.
But make no mistake. The promise of a better life for the people of
Kashechewan was the prize that came up in a tainted-water lottery the federal
government has played far too long.
The payoff was just the price that had to be paid by a government trying to
save its own neck.
If that seems cynical, dust off a copy of the long-forgotten 1996 report of
the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples. The report details the many ways
in which the living standards of native Canadians fall so far short of those
of other Canadians that they are often compared to the conditions in the
Third World.
Among the litany of problems cited by the commission almost a decade ago
were the inadequate water and sanitation systems in many aboriginal communities.
Many of those systems are still waiting to be fixed. The report also notes
the "flimsy, leaky and overcrowded" housing in which far too many aboriginal
Canadians are forced to live, just like the housing at Kashechewan, which
Scott now promises to replace.
Remember, too, that just as news of this crisis was breaking, Prime Minister
Paul Martin was not talking about making up for the decade of neglect that
followed the release of the commission's report on the plight of aboriginal
people.
Instead, Martin was talking about his plans to use a big chunk of this
year's surplus to pay for tax cuts that the desperately poor majority of native
Canadians would never see.
There can be no doubt the natives now have Martin's attention. The pressure
is already building for Martin to do more for aboriginals across the country
when he meets the provincial premiers and territorial leaders next month in
Kelowna, B.C., to discuss native issues.
But if Martin wants to make a real and lasting difference in the lives of
Canada's native peoples, he will raise the one issue that no one has been
willing to discuss. That is the glaring contradiction between restoring the
physical infrastructure in communities so far removed from the Canadian economy and
the pressing need to create jobs for the people who live in them.
Unemployment on reserves is sky high. But it is lower and dropping for
aboriginal people who live near urban areas. Joblessness on reserves is at the
root of so many other issues highlighted in the commission's report: poverty,
family violence, alcoholism, illness and low attainment in education.
Kashechewan is a prime example of this disconnect. The near-80 per cent
unemployment rate on the reserve bears testament to the fact that there is almost
no gainful employment to be had on the isolated, desolate western shores of
James Bay. It is too far from the factories, offices and even the resources
that are the source of nearly all Canadian jobs.
Yes, everyone needs clean water. But they also need work.
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