When the northern Ontario Aboriginal community of Attawapiskat declared a state of emergency in 2011 because its houses were falling apart, it was analogous to the social state of emergency that exists on many Aboriginal reserves.
The discovery of valuable minerals in the so-called “Ring of Fire” in Northern Ontario has brought discussion of these social challenges to the fore once again. The Ring of Fire, discovered in the early 2000s, has been estimated to contain between $30 billion and $50 billion worth of mineral deposits. This land, currently in early development, is expected to produce between 3,600 direct and 4,500 indirect jobs. The Ring of Fire has the potential to be a catalyst of socio-economic development among nearby Aboriginal communities.
However, a recent report by Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada states that “First Nations in the Ring of Fire are some of the most socioeconomically disadvantaged communities in all of Canada.” The report goes on to say, “Chronic housing shortages, low education outcomes and lack of access to clean drinking water jeopardize the ability of local First Nations to benefit from the significant economic, employment and business development opportunities associated with the Ring of Fire developments.”
I have first-hand experience of the challenges that face Northern communities. I lived in the Northern reserve of Moose Factory for seven years during my childhood. I’ve since been back “up north” a couple of times, including a trip to Attawapiskat a couple of years ago. I still have Aboriginal friends in Northern Ontario. To begin resolving this situation we need to do as the Aboriginal Affairs report says and “build social infrastructure” in the North.
There are many factors hindering this social infrastructure. Health care in the north is not easily accessible as there are only two fully functioning hospitals in the vast expanse of Northern Ontario. The governance structure of Aboriginal reserves, and the constant battle for power between band councils and the Federal government, marginalizes the people. Aboriginal reserves lack the benefits of a market economy because individuals cannot own land on reserves, and tax structures create disincentives for Aboriginals to seek off-reserve profits.
The education system of the North also needs to be repaired. The Federal government handles education on reserves while the provinces handle it off of the reserves. There is a significant funding gap between on- and off-reserve education and only 41% of Aboriginal children graduate from high school, compared to 77% of the general population. The children of Attawapiskat have a new school opening in September; they haven’t had a school since the previous one was contaminated by a gas leak in 1996.
Until the 1990s, the residential school system ran as an attempt at cultural genocide by the government and mainline churches. Among other countless problems that have resulted, multiple generations of Aboriginals have struggled to fit in with both the mainstream culture and their own culture. Research from Christopher Lalonde and Michael Chandler suggests that a sense of cultural identity is a strong protective factor against suicides on Aboriginal reserves.
Because churches were involved in the residential school system, there is a deep mistrust of religious institutions among Aboriginals, especially those run by White people. There are a handful of churches, mostly Anglican and Catholic, in Northern Ontario, but they are usually not well-attended. Since religious institutions are important sources of social capital, churches and other faith institutions need to strongly renounce their part in residential schools, and establish bonds with Aboriginals while being sensitive to their cultural identity.
The physical structures of the homes in Attawapiskat were not built to withstand the harsh environment of the far North. Similarly, the socio-economic structures are not developed enough to build prosperity for many Aboriginal reserves, despite opportunities like the Ring of Fire. Like rebuilding the houses of Attawapiskat, all Canadians need to start working together on the foundations to rebuild the social institutions of the North.