What actions could end the shocking disparity between the prosperity of Canada and the deprivation of First Nations? In our series Rich Country, Poor Nations, a range of contributors argue for one idea that could make a difference.
Paul Martin was prime minister of Canada from 2003-2006
When it comes to the reality of indigenous life in Canada, no issue can be deemed the most important. But if I were to single out one action that has too long been ignored, it would be to repair the mistake that was made by colonial governments who, believing that native culture had no value, assumed its people had nothing to say.
This false assumption has contributed grievously to the wrong and repeated attempts to assimilate the First Nations, which is a root cause of so much of the poverty and missed opportunity we see today. From outlawing traditional ceremonies to the horrors of residential schools, the history of Canada is fraught with examples of a culturally genocidal dismissal of First Nations values and sense of worth, a policy of unconscionable discrimination that continues apace. For example, it can be seen in the current case before the Human Rights Tribunal on the underfunding of child welfare on-reserve, where one out of every two children already lives below the poverty line, and in the current underfunding of schools on-reserve as a result of the government's expropriation of the new education monies provided in the 2006 Kelowna Accord.
It's to be hoped that the tribunal will render its decision soon, and that it will be the right one. But what about the six-year-olds on-reserve who enter Grade 1 only to be told effectively that their education is less important than the students attending provincial schools, which receive much greater per capita funding.
Nor is this the only issue arising out of the government's most recent education bill – C33, which not only failed to provide adequate funding, but was as well oblivious to the importance of community involvement in a child's schooling. The bill would have legislated that Ottawa, which has no department of education, should nonetheless assert control over on-reserve learning, despite the fact that across the country there are outstanding First Nations educators and countless examples of structures that work. Even more baffling was the government's knee-jerk reaction when asked before Christmas by the First Nations leadership for a meeting to resolve these issues. The minister refused, stating that it was the "government's plan or no plan." At some point the government must come to its senses.
Wherein lies the answer? It lies on a dusty shelf of a shuttered library in a recommendation of the 1996 Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, which says, "Aboriginal children are entitled to learn and achieve in an environment that supports their development as whole individuals." It is this statement that must penetrate the conscience of the nation, for it means that we cannot ignore the need for indigenous thought and fairer funding in on-reserve schools. It also means we can no longer ignore the need for indigenous history in all of our schools.
Can indigenous thought hold its own? Of course it can. Modern science and mathematics are an essential component of indigenous learning. However, unlike Western teaching, which compartmentalizes much knowledge, the indigenous approach, which is grounded in the links between all of existence, is more holistic. Or to come at it another way: Western thought often implies that we are above nature. Indigenous thought states that we are unequivocally a part of nature, which is one of the reasons indigenous thinkers have had trouble making themselves heard in so many debates, such as those focused on the environment.
To put it quite simply, while indigenous traditions differ from many of their Western counterparts, this is not to say that in the search for the truth we can't learn from each other - and the time to start is now! This for many reasons! But let me close with two. The first is that to deny the benefits of working together is to subvert the very openness that has advanced human knowledge thus far. Furthermore, as Canadians, it is to ignore our origins as a nation at a time when the real need is to repair the consequences of those who treated this land as terra nullius, or a place where nobody lived, so many hundreds of years ago.
The second reason for raising the indigenous worldview is that indigenous Canadians are the youngest and fastest-growing segment of our population. They are arriving on the doorsteps of Canadian colleges and universities in greater numbers than ever before. Thus, it is important that our institutions of higher learning recognize the argument of many indigenous scholars to the effect that indigenous thought is not a subset of Eurocentric thought, but a body of knowledge with very different origins that are every bit as rich and profound.
This is important in terms of the integrity of university teaching. But it is important for another reason as well, one to be found in an insight of the philosopher Charles Taylor, who suggested that it is non-recognition, of being invisible, of not being there in the minds of the majority that is one of the major obstacles facing those of indigenous origin. In today's Canada, no student who wants to succeed should have to leave their identity at the door when they walk into a classroom.