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Misery is big business

Author: 
Paul Barnsley, Windspeaker Staff Writer, VICTORIA
Volume: 
18
Issue: 
9
Year: 
2001

Page 6

Taiaiake Alfred, professor of Indigenous governance at the University of Victoria, is a Mohawk who has written extensively on the root problems that have led to the social conditions in First Nations. He believes the Indian Act system is a tool that Canada uses to impose its law on once sovereign nations and to keep any sovereignty movements from taking root and challenging Canadian jurisdiction. He has also written that band council governments have been co-opted and forced, through economic pressure and enticements, to maintain that state of affairs.

If one believes the academic research that concludes the loss of traditional lifestyles, values and forms of self government have led to the despair that, in turn, leads to the suicides and other social ills, then it follows, Alfred believes, that participants in the band council establishment are managing their own misery. And misery is such big business in First Nation communities that it has become the central industry. That means many people have a lot to lose if a solution to the problems is found.

?All of the money and all of the programs are geared towards managing this misery. What incentive is there to give some of that up, to embark on a path that?s going to lead to real resolution? There?s no money in it. There?s no real status or recognition in it, aside from the satisfaction they would get from doing the right thing and doing the thing that?s called for within our value system. It takes a rare leader to be able to respond to that rather than money,? he said. ?I don?t want to paint everybody with evil intent here. I?m just saying in making the choices they make every day in terms of spreading their time around and their political clout around, they think like a politician and think, ?Well, what?s the payoff for me?? Well, there?s none, really, aside from human kindness and human interest.?

But a chronic lack of resources and complex bureaucratic regulations keep workers so busy they don?t have the luxury of reflecting on what?s wrong with the system. For better or for worse, they are the system.

?I would be surprised if it was that explicit in people?s minds. It?s more in the way the system is structured right now where there?s all kinds of disincentives to move in a direction that would fix these problems and all kinds of incentives to maintain this structure that creates the problem. So, in other words, people whose job is it to manage the pain and discord in their community are very unlikely to support massive structural change that would result in the elimination of their institution and, by virtue of that, their job. So it becomes more an unconscious maintenance of the situation than any kind of conscious decision to maintain all of that misery. It?s kind of like the un-thought, rather than the conscious, that?s supporting all of this, and simply by doing their job, what they?re doing is creating a situation where it becomes impossible to transcend what we?re faced with,? he said.

That may explain why stress levels are so high among council employees, he suggested.

?Unless you?ve gone through the process of thinking it through and decolonizing yourself and coming to an understanding of exactly what role you are playing in this colonial situation, then you run into this confusion in your mind over what you?re doing versus what you hope to be doing, and then you get all these psychological stresses that result from that,? he said. ?So, it?s the same thing as any other person in our communities, except, maybe, it?s even more difficult because what you have is the opportunity, theoretically, to do something about the problem, and the expectation you will do something about the problem, but then you find out in the course of doing your job that you can?t do anything about the roots of it. All you can do is help to manage the maintenance of that problem. And that?s probably the most stressful thing that anyone can face up to, to say, ?Uless I get out of this job, I?m a contributor.? It?s very difficult, practically speaking, to ask someone to give up their livelihood. That?s the thing that we?d all like to think we would do, but when it gets down to it, it?s very difficult.?

Alfred feels it?s time to stop allowing the damages of colonialism to hurt the young people and that means parents and other adults must decide to shoulder some of the responsibility for healing the communities.

?Personal responsibility is the core element in resolving all of these problems. We can only blame the White Man, we can only blame colonization, so much. Our own self-determination depends on our own personal ability and the ability of all of the people in our community to understand what the stresses are in their life and be able to combat them with some kind of effective strategy on a personal and a collective level and the responsibilities for that is with ourselves,? he said. ?If those children are suffering and living in misery, sure colonization is the root cause of it, but the parents also are a cause of it, too, in falling victim to the stresses that colonization puts on that community and not combating them in an effective way.?

The Innu people need to work their own way through the trauma created by the destruction of their traditional lifestyle, but he said the crisis faced by their youth requires they seek whatever help they can to find a quick solution.

?That community has failed in some basic way and they need help from the outside,? he said. ?Now, I agree with them that they don?t need white people coming in and telling them what to do. But they certainly need our help. They need the help of other Indigenous people who have had some success at addressing this problem.?

He then noted that other Aboriginal leaders have not been very quick to offer help to the Innu.

?I guess there?s not enough of a sense of solidarity or brotherhood with those people for our own leaders to make a seriou sacrifice to get something done,? he said. ?The sad fact of it is that children have no political clout. As a political constituency they don?t represent any power and all of our governments are run on the basis of responding to that type of clout, represented in the electoral system by votes, by money, mainly, in the system and then in the Native systems by the influence they can exert over access to programming. The interest in that sense is to maintain the problem, because program monies keep coming. But as for real substantive changes, the children don?t have a voice. They don?t have leadership. They don?t have the importance in the ways that count in Canadian governments and, sadly, in our own governments. They don?t have any power in any way, shape or form. It?s really dependent on those people in positions of leadership who have a conscience, who have a social conscience and who have a sense of responsibility coming out of our traditional value system, to ensure the well being of all our people, including the young people. Sadly, those people are few and far between. So you have some people committed and most people who care but as a cause for action within the system that we have right now, it?s hardly an incentive at all for a politician to respond to these issues. There?s no cost to ignoring it.?

Alfred said his critical comments of leaders who don?t challenge the authority of the federal government, who co-operate with the Indian Act system, have led to threats by people he sees as having a lot to lose if the status quo is disturbed.

?It seems to be a very aggressive defense of the Indian Act as the entire universe of political and social life in Native communities. Once that takes root in a community then it?s very easy to see how they get manipulated by the people who control the Indian Affairs system and all of its funding. There?s no alternative,? he said. ?If you still have some kind of a traditional perspective, the least it would do, even f it wasn?t acted on, would be to give people the opportunity to say, ?No. That?s wrong. Our traditions say we?re not supposed to behave this way.? But right now, they have no reference point other than what?s tolerable or allowed within the Indian Affairs system and it?s an inherently corrupt system. There?s no guide-post for ethical behavior aside from what Indian Affairs will allow or not allow.?

There is also resistance to his ideas from outside First Nations. Critics of Indian Affairs who believe the answer is total assimilation are prescribing more of the same in the illogical belief that it will turn into a cure, Alfred said.

?Their solution is just a further extension of what we have already. So, by that logic, you can see the social and other dysfunctions just continuing or getting greater,? he said.

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