Gord Downie will not make things better

Canadians forgot about Chanie Wenjack before. They can forget about him again.

✎  Wayne K. Spear | November 16, 2017 • Current Events

IN 1904 CANADA’S DEPARTMENT of Indian Affairs recruited the Chief Medical Officer of the Department of Immigration to study the health conditions throughout the western territories of the Indian residential school system. P.H. Bryce’s report, submitted on June 19, 1907 to Frank Pedley, Deputy Superintendent General of Indian Affairs, did not please his superiors. Not only were Bryce’s meticulous observations unpleasant, they were submitted on the false assumption that the federal government was in fact interested in improving the health and welfare of the children in its care. At the time Bryce was witnessing the substandard living conditions of the residential schools (where hunger, fires, overcrowding, and death rates of 20 percent and higher were common) the future head of Indian Affairs, Duncan Campbell Scott, was a treaty commisioner and the author of a 1905 collection of poetry, New World Lyrics and Ballads. Scott would eventually push the troublesome Bryce out of his job, admitting that

It is readily acknowledged that Indian children lose their natural resistance to illness by habituating so closely in the residential schools, and that they die at a much higher rate than in their villages. But this alone does not justify a change in the policy of this Department, which is geared towards a final solution of our Indian Problem.

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You’ve probably heard of P.H. Bryce, and you’ve also likely seen the Scott quotation. The effort of Duncan Campbell Scott to silence Bryce was a failed one, as such efforts often are. In 1922 Bryce’s medical report was turned into a book, under the fulsome title The Story of a National Crime: Being an Appeal for Justice to the Indians of Canada, the Wards of the Nation, Our Allies in the Revolutionary War, Our Brothers-in-Arms in the Great War.” Bryce’s book gave rise to newspaper headlines and to articles in well-circulated Canadian publications like Saturday Night Magazine and presumably also to momentary outrage and scandal. As early as the 1920s the general Canadian public could and did know that (for example) preventable deaths of children had occured in the residential schools at rates between 30 and 60 percent, and that “ a trail of disease and death has gone on almost unchecked by any serious efforts on the part of the Department of Indian Affairs.” Bryce not only had pointed figures, he had pointed fingers, specifcally assigning blame over the failure to improve matters to “the active opposition of Mr. D.C. Scott.”

Today Bryce is considered a rare example of a principled and outspoken critic of the Indian residential school system. He lost his career advocating on behalf of Indigenous children, and having found himself dismissed from the federal government, he took his crusade to the public. As far as I can tell, Bryce’s efforts changed nothing. The Indian residential schools would remain for another 47 years beyond the publication of The Story of a National Crime, and the conditions of the schools would slowly improve, because in the post-war years everything was improving. But the improvements didn’t prevent further, unnecessary deaths.

Chanie Wenjack was a public school student, boarded at the Cecilia Jeffrey Indian Residential School. You have almost certainly heard of him, and of his story, from Gord Downie. You know that he ran away from the residential school in October 1966 (just as many, many children ran way) and that he died of hunger and exposure longing to see the faces and to feel the embrace of his distant family. What you might not know is that Chanie’s story also had a P.H. Bryce figure, in the form of Ian Adams, a journalist whose February 1967 Maclean’s article, “The Lonely Death of Charlie Wenjack,” also received national attention. The article was turned into a chapter of Adams’ 1970 book, The Poverty Wall is Guilt of Greed, Racism, and the Misery of 6,000,000 Canadians. In the meanwhile, considerations raised by the death of Chanie Wenjack were the subject of additional media attention, including a front-page, June 21, 1969 Toronto Star report by Glen Allen. Over and over again, the “plight” of Indigenous people has been brought to the front pages, and to the attention of Canadians, to little if any effect.

In Thunder Bay there was an inquest recently into the deaths of seven Indigenous youth who had come south to attend high school. These young students, like Chanie Wenjack, were boarded many miles from home. In 1966 the jurors of a coroner’s inquest into the death of Chanie Wenjack questioned the wisdom of the education system. The jurors (none of whom was Indigenous) were able to see that the “Indian education system causes tremendous emotional & adjustment problems for these children.” They were baffled by the residential school system—specfically by the evident lack of the moral and practical wisdom of removing children from familes to have them educated far from home. The inquest recommendations directed that “a study be made of the present Indian Affairs’ education system and philosophy. Is it right?”—but none of the recommendations went anywhere. As Tanya Talaga has shown, in her book Seven Fallen Feathers, a straight line can be drawn from the residential schools to the death of Chanie Wenjack to the Thunder Bay deaths. Is the Indian Affairs education system and philosophy right? Do the deaths of Indigenous children justify a change in the policy of this Department? As the years go on, it seems more and more likely that Duncan Campbell Scott spoke for Canada and Canadians.

It isn’t true that nothing changes. But the deaths of Indigenous children, attending schools hundreds of miles from family and home, because there are no schools nearby, continue.

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And the rediscovery of this reality, over and over, through articles and books and songs, continues also. A generation ago the title of Bryce’s 1922 book appeared on John Milloy’s 1999 A National Crime: The Canadian Government and the Residential School System, 1879 to 1986. A country that had forgotten all about Indian residential schools in the 77 years since Bryce, and in the 32 years since Chanie Wenjack, was once again scandalised to discover its poorly-hidden history. The Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples released its final report in 1996 (John Milloy, author of A National Crime, wrote the RCAP chapter on Indian residential schools) and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada released its final report in December 2015. In the quarter century between 1990 and 2015, dozens and perhaps even hundreds of memoirs were written by the survivors of abuses in Canada’s Indian Residential School System. Yet somehow a good number of Canadians were shocked and surprised to learn about a piece of their history from a singer in a rock band.

The Ottawa Book Awards and new work from Chelsea Vowel

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I’ve been working away these past months at the 2016 Ottawa Book Awards reading list. One of three jurors in the non-fiction category, I drew up my list of finalists this past week, along with my colleagues. I’m pleased to say there was consensus on three of our top five selections. Early in June, I expect, we’ll sort matters out.

There’s an opportunity cost to a commitment of this scale. I agreed to read 21 books in about as many weeks, some of them rather hefty and dense. That’s a lot of hours I could have been doing many other things, but I did enjoy the labour and along the way discovered some books I might not have found otherwise.

Now I have a smallish library of book award books I will be passing along. Only a couple weeks ago I (once again) thinned out the over-flowing shelves, and I’ve no desire to go backwards. Already I have specific books in mind for specific people. And I wish I could tell you what I’ve read and what I thought about it, but until the requisite announcements have been made, I’m keeping my reading list and my thoughts private.

In the meantime, here’s a book I’m looking forward to reading, to recommending, and to giving away. It’s by Chelsea Vowel, more widely known by the name âpihtawikosisân. The book will be released in September but is available now for pre-order.

 

Miche vs Canada: the dangerous quicksand of First Nations rights

This is a story about folks who just want a chance to clean the slate and get on with their lives

Meet my good friend, Miche. Here is his story.

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Some years ago, Miche and I belonged to a company called Native Leasing Services, based on my reserve—the Six Nations of the Grand River, near Brantford in Ontario.

The idea of Native Leasing Services is simple: you work for the company, and the company leases you to aboriginal organizations across Canada. NLS provides all the services typical of its industry: payroll, group benefits, HR, and so on. Miche and I worked at the Aboriginal Healing Foundation, in Ottawa. That’s how we got to be good friends.

Because NLS is located on a reserve, our income was income-tax-free. We paid Employment Insurance and other common payroll deductions, including a leasing fee. It was legal and, in the opinion of NLS (which Miche and I share), consistent with long-standing Aboriginal rights in Canada.

Somewhere along the way, the federal government changed the rules concerning native income and taxation. They didn’t like the idea of NLS, so they came up with new rules that made it near-impossible for an Aboriginal person to claim income-tax-free status.

Today, you have to live and work on a reserve, and any product or service that you produce has to be delivered and consumed on a reserve as well. As soon as you or your product steps foot off a reserve, the federal government demands the taxes.

Tomorrow, who knows? The government is always changing its rules.

NLS went to court to fight the changes. The test cases dragged on for years (court cases usually do) and the Canadian courts ruled against us.

Typically in these test cases, the government will issue a Remission Order. The idea is that once you’ve lost in court, the ruling applies and you have to start paying taxes, as per the court’s decision. The Remission Order “forgives” the taxes up to that point, and you start from zero.

So far that hasn’t been the case. Revenue Canada, or CRA, is claiming all the back taxes from the roughly 4,000 former NLS employees. Some of us were with NLS as early the ‘80s and ’90s and face decades of back taxes. The government is pursuing hundreds of thousands of dollars from people who make, maybe, 30 or 40 thousand dollars a year. In some instances, tax bills that started out as $10,000 are now ten times that, due to compounding interest.

Miche takes home about $24,000 a year, after taxes, or just over $1,000 every two weeks. This month, CRA began to garnish his income. Even before this happened, he was borrowing money to pay the rent. He has a young daughter, and all the usual bills. He’s been struggling to make ends meet.

As a result of CRA’s actions, Miche’s wife has taken a new job a few hours away, on her home reserve in Akwesasne. Their daughter goes back and forth. The family gets to spend a day or two together each week, except when a shift comes up and Miche’s wife gets a last-minute call to come into work, as she did last weekend.

Miche is so stressed he’s been on medical leave. CRA is demanding over $195,000 in back taxes, a number that goes up every single hour of every single day due to compounding interest. Absent a Remission Order, he’ll be under financial stress for the rest of his life—even if he lives 50 more years and dies at 100. (He figures this is unlikely, and that stress is taking years off of his life.)

As crazy as this is, it’s not unusual. Former NLS employees are routinely hounded and threatened. Many, like Miche, work at health and social service agencies, for modest wages. CRA has clawed back the pensions of former NLS employees who are now sick and elderly. They’ve seized bank accounts. They’ve threatened further, unspecified legal actions. All for something that was legal not so long ago.

They have also made it impossible for people to plan and secure their financial future. What’s the point of getting a better job, saving for your child’s education, or putting retirement funds aside (asumming you’re even able to do this—which most NLS employees aren’t) if it’s just going to be suddenly taken away without your even knowing? Imagine looking 30 years down the road and still seeing an uncertain, even desperate, financial picture. Maybe you don’t have to imagine. Maybe that’s you. In any case, it’s the very definition of hopelessness.

Although we applied for the Remission Order 3 years ago, no progress has been made. The Minister of Revenue has to sign the order, and when we ask about progress we get a bureaucratic answer: “we’re looking at it.” And looking, and looking.

Meanwhile over at CRA they’re wreaking havoc with marriages, families, and lives. Here’s the best-worst part: the pocket change they are getting from Miche (about $300 a month) is not even going to pay for the psychological and physical help he needs already. He’s a wreck. He can’t sleep. He can’t focus. He breaks into tears. He worries, understandably, about his wife and daughter. Things were already tough. Now he’s being pushed to the end of his rope.

There are many, many of these stories that I could tell. As we’ve all seen in the recent KPMG affair, if you are a millionaire or billionaire, CRA has bottomless understanding and compassion. Your Remission Order is on the way, even before you ask. But if you live paycheck-to-paycheck, and you owe even $100 dollars, expect to be hunted to the ends of the earth and squeezed for every last dime. CRA has even sent people to banks to get a few bucks from NLS employees.

Let’s be clear: the government is never going to get this money. They will get cents on the dollar, because that’s all that there is to be had. No one has $200,000 sitting in a pile, in the corner of the room. CRA will spend a hundred dollars to get one dollar back, and the cost of getting this dollar won’t just be financial: it will be emotional and psychological.

A lot of good, generous people have written letters to the new federal government asking that the Remission Order be issued for the NLS employees. I’d like to think the Prime Minister and his cabinet will look at this issue and see it for what it is: an impossible situation. For the federal treasury, Miche’s debt is an irrelevance. It’s less money than the rounding error on a new military fighter jet or the federal cabinet’s annual meal budgets. Pocket change.

But for Miche, this debt is a burden that’s slowly grinding him down, and the same is true for many others.

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This is a story about folks who just want a chance to get on with their lives. That’s why Miche and Ramona Dunn (above) have gone public: to resolve an impossible situation. They are not scam artists or criminals. They have jobs and families and hopes for an ordinary decent life, a hope that is slipping away.

Go here to read Ramona Dunn’s petition to have the Remission Order Application moved quickly through the assessment process to bring closure and to allow the individuals affected to get on with their lives.

The Indian Residential Schools Are Still With Us

In 2010, I interviewed the former National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, Phil Fontaine, about his many years as a politician. The conclusion of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement negotiations was a few years behind, and I asked Phil for his assessment. What did he think of the agreement?

Never mind that this settlement was, as people like to say, “historic”—at $5-billion and more, the largest court-supervised class action in Canada’s history. Never mind that it had involved dozens of lawyers in simultaneous, multi-city sessions, or that it was front-page news for months and even years running. Indeed, today’s Globe and Mail headline reads “Residential Schools: Bennett puts settlement onus on Catholics.” Who would have thought the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement would be news nearly a full decade after its 2007 roll-out. Maybe Phil. But on that day he shrugged and pulled a face. He was proud of the agreement and said something to the effect that it was the best they were going to get. But there was something wrankling him, and he told me what it was.

Phil had many accomplishments over his career. He listed a few. I couldn’t dissent: he’d been more than a few places, made more than a few waves. Yet inevitably when he’s introduced, he pointed out, it’s the residential schools that everyone mentions, and only the residential schools. Everything else disappeared.

I don’t usually commiserate with politicians, but in this instance I knew exactly how he felt. I’ve written on hundreds of topics over the past three decades, but to the degree I’m known for anything at all, it’s the Indian Residential School System. My articles on residential schools, routinely the most-visited pieces on this blog, are about the only thing I’ve composed that could be called “evergreen.” My book on residential schools is by far my most successful book, by which I mean it’s the book that people actually read, more than any other of mine.

I’m not complaining. I am, however, registering genuine surprise. I never expected the article I wrote in May 2002, for the Globe and Mail, to be at the top of the most-read list in May 2016. In the meanwhile I’ve written nearly a thousand essays that have dropped (as they do, for most writers of current event) into the black hole of yesterday. Perhaps I should have expected this. Twenty years ago I’d learned to assert that, just as the Indian residential schools had done decades worth of damage, it would take decades to heal and restitute. Canada may wish to be done with its residential school history, but history is not done with Canada. Not even close.

Today’s Globe and Mail headline refers to the amounts negotiated in Schedule 0-3 of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, by the Corporation for the Catholic Entities, Parties to the IRSSA (or CCEPIRSSA). Why then an “onus”? The short answer is that the (in my estimation) badly-written agreement committed the Catholic Entities to the “best effort” fund-raising of a $25-million “Canada-Wide Campaign.” It didn’t pan out, according to lawyers for the CCEPIRSSA. So the federal government released the Catholic Entities, who ran ~65% of the residential schools, from this settlement obligation.

I mention the badly-written bit because the current mess was created by the agreement, insofar as it is a vaguely-composed document with no clear timelines or enforcements. And what exactly constitutes a “best effort”? Who decides? These and many other questions are not answered by Schedule 0-3, which bears all the evidence of having been drafted by junior lawyers while, elsewhere, the bulk of the effort went into the Common Experience Payment.

All of this makes me wonder where we’ll be five years from now. Or ten, or twenty. With some confidence, I can say that the Indian residential schools will probably be with us. The question is, will we be inching closer to restitution, or slinking yet further away?

eBook Download: Reconciliation & the Way Forward

Reconciliation and the Way Forward

LAST WEEK in Ottawa I had the pleasure of launching the book Reconciliation & the Way Forward with my friends Shelagh Rogers, Glen Lowry, Sara Fryer and Mike DeGagné. I contributed an essay (“Time to Get Our Indian Act Together for First Nations Students”) that was previously published at the National Post. Click on the image above to download a 4.2Mb PDF version of the book.

The Long Tsilhqot’in Journey to Aboriginal Title

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THE WEBSITE of the Xeni Gwet’in (pronounced Honey Gwi-deen) reads like a manifesto:

In a world full of travel promises, some kept others not, the Xeni Gwet’in people offer none. The Xeni prefer to simply share their home with respectful travelers—those who follow their hearts, live their passion and still have the capacity to be awestruck by mountain peaks reflecting on sparkling alpine lakes and by magnificent creatures at home in a pristine wilderness. This is a place of freedom and of contentment—a place to be shared with friends, new and old.

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Looking Beyond the First Nation Control of First Nations Education Act

LAST WEEK I WAS interviewed for a CBC program on the topic of Bill C-33, the First Nations Control of First Nations Education Act. The name of the program is immaterial. If you look it up, you won’t find me. That interview was tossed, and another guest was found.

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Notes Toward a Candid Conversation About Genocide in Canada

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AS THE TRUTH AND RECONCILIATION Commission of Canada hosts its national event this week, in Edmonton, the topic of genocide is once again surfacing. Usually the topic is posed as a question: is Canada “guilty of genocide”? Over the years, I’ve had many conversations that began with this question, and I’ve done a fair amount of reading and thinking. Here are my notes toward an informed conversation about Canada and genocide.

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The Sixties Scoop

Sixties Scoop

WINNIPEG FREE PRESS reported this week that Manitoba Aboriginal Affairs Minister Eric Robinson will host a two-day roundtable with twenty people who were part of something now known as the “Sixties Scoop.” For some of you this will be a new and unfamiliar phrase, and you’ll wonder why adopted aboriginal children are calling for an apology from the federal government of Canada. This essay will attempt to inform you on these and other points.

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Give the First Nations Education Act a Chance

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THE ISRAELI DIPLOMAT, orator and polyglot, Abba Eban, is today memorialized in the truism that men and nations behave wisely only once they have exhausted all the other alternatives. In the case of Canada’s exhausted Indian Act policies, the alternatives to a wiser course have been many as well as durable, as we all know. Thus it is with surprise, and enthusiasm even, that the Assembly of First Nations is this week absorbing Canada’s late acceptance of the five “Conditions for the Success of First Nations Education,” enunciated in the AFN’s December 2013 unanimous resolution and enshrined in Finance Minister Flaherty’s 2014 budget. These conditions are as follows:

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The Sound and the Fury of Indian Politicians

WHILE THE POLITICAL theatre of a possible meeting of some vague nature between the Prime Minister of Canada and the Assembly of First Nations strutted the national stage, I thought of a few lines from Shakespeare’s Sonnet 59:

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