The Myth of Canada’s Indigenous Garden of Eden

Indigenous youth need education, skills, and opportunity, not obsolete mythology
May 21, 2020 Updated: May 21, 2020


Many Canadians harbour foundational misconceptions about marginalized Indigenous communities and ignore the grim future for next generations. For multigenerational welfare families in remote settlements and urban slums, the gap has never been wider between the marginalized Indigenous underclass and the government’s much-vaunted middle class. Except for a privileged minority, by standard measures of societal dysfunctionality, the gap the government undertook to close widens exponentially.

Mandated to address deep-seated challenges, Canada’s misnamed Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls inquiry disregarded the obvious: that educated and skilled citizens in rewarding employment seldom commit suicide, seldom disappear, are seldom addicts, are seldom spouse-beaters or sexual predators, and seldom end up in prison. Indigenous youth gained nothing from these expensive endeavours or their resulting reports.

The pre-industrial lifestyle changed forever some three centuries ago, with European contact and the fur trade. But that trade has been defunct for decades, and nothing has taken its place. In 1876, upon affirming Treaty Six, the great leader and peacemaker Chief Poundmaker said:

“When I commence to settle on the lands to make a living for myself and my children, I beg of you to assist me in every way possible. When I am at a loss how to proceed, I want the advice and assistance of the government. The children yet unborn, I wish you to treat them in like manner as they advance in civilization like the white man.”

Overriding what Poundmaker expected, millions of immigrants arrived and pushed aside members of the Indigenous community unprepared for the opportunities. Indigenous people joined the armed forces for the two world wars, when they were needed. One reason for enlisting was the belief that their contribution to the war effort would enable acceptance and equality of opportunity. That didn’t happen. Since 1945 immigration has surged, employers prefer to hire new arrivals, and today Indigenous youth seldom qualify for rewarding, well-paid employment in the high-tech economy.

Chief Dan George, pleading like Martin Luther King for recognition on the basis of character, not skin colour, said in his 1967 Lament for Confederation speech:

“Oh God! Like the thunderbird of old I shall rise again out of the sea; I shall grab the instruments of the white man’s success—his education, his skills—and with these new tools I shall build my race into the proudest segment of your society.”

When producers of the TV series “First Contact” visited Kimmirut, on the southern coast of Baffin Island, they found 400 Inuit living a modified traditional lifestyle. They weren’t told that they were living at Club Med in the Arctic courtesy of taxpayers. Nobody told them about the typically distressed Inuk on a drunken rampage who murdered a young RCMP officer loved by the settlement’s children as Big Brother. Kimmirut was home to Peter Pitseolak, who in the 1960s wrote his memoir in Inuktitut. He expected that his grandchildren could become medical doctors. Given what passes for education in Nunavut today, described to me by a recent graduate as torture by boredom, such aspirations would be absurd. The television crew met Inuit who had never even learned to speak English.

In 1925, anthropologist Diamond Jenness recommended educating and training the people of the North for the jobs in their own lands. A century later, that still hasn’t happened. Outsiders fill almost all jobs requiring professional qualifications or trade certification. In his 1968 essay “Eskimo Administration” (Vol. 5), Jenness delivered a reality check that remains unheeded:

“It is criminal folly, therefore to suggest, as is often done, even today, that we should encourage [Inuit] to take up again the life of their forefathers, and endeavor to recover their independence by hunting and fishing in regions where game has not ceased to be plentiful,” he wrote. “Hunting and fishing may provide them with food and even clothing, but it cannot bring in the income they need to buy rifles and ammunition, boats and outboard motors, and all the other articles of civilization without which they would perish almost as rapidly as we would.”

Criminal folly! Equipment for hunting and fishing as well as for housing, food, and support for a family requires money from well-paid work—or else, inadequately, from taxpayers. Today, ostensible leaders, who don’t speak for followers, hearken back to a Garden of Eden that never was. They do that even as an Ojibwa grandmother from northern Ontario tells me, for example, “I simply don’t care about my land. It doesn’t do a damn thing for us anymore.”

Epoch Times Photo
Alison Nakoolak with two of her children in a tent in Iqaluit in November 2015. Nakoolak, her husband, and their four children lived in this tent for three months over the winter. At least 5,000 Inuit need housing, and some prefer to live in a tent rather with relatives in already overly crowded homes. (John Van Dusen/CBC)

Indigenous youth needn’t abandon their history to get relief from the burden of historic grievances, real as some once were. Given a real leg up, they could prosper alongside once-marginalized and now-successful Asians. Then the Indian Act would be almost irrelevant. They could also share aptitude for STEM disciplines—science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Think residential school graduate Douglas Cardinal, architect for the Museum of History in Ottawa. Or renowned Inuit thoracic surgeon Noah Carpenter, born on the trapline, and a residential-school graduate in 1963, before progressive education took hold.

The marginalized Indigenous need acceptable housing, enhanced education and skills training, and sports and recreation—where opportunities exist for rewarding employment. Think in terms of the Marshall Plan for financing, with delivery based on good private schools, or the American Success Academy and Knowledge is Power (KIPP) programs, or Waldorf or Outward Bound schools. KIPP seeks out poverty-stricken communities, and education does the heavy lifting. Taking pride in their children’s progress then helps parents to stabilize their own lives.

Along with inadequate housing and inappropriate or insufficient food, inadequate education and insufficient phys-ed in childhood and youth impair empowerment for all aspects of life.

A study in Denmark indicated that alcoholism in either fathers or mothers disproportionately extends to next generations even when children are separated from alcoholic parents at birth. What, then, about widespread neglect and fetal alcohol syndrome in Indigenous communities, induced by binge drinking, drug addiction, and smoking by unfit and promiscuous teenage girls during pregnancy? Do these deprivations impact subsequent generations?

A recent book, “The Gendered Brain” by Gina Rippon, has general application:

“Acquired skills affect the brain. Brains are affected by real events—jobs, education, games—and by the attitudes and expectations of those around us,” Rippon writes. “As humans crave belonging and dread rejection, bombardment from birth with stereotyping and gender-dependent expectations results in self-limiting behavior. … Stereotypes are brain-changers … and provide extraordinary steer in determining the end-point in both our behavior and our brains.”

With the majority of Indigenous peoples now living in southern cities, and Ottawa having Canada’s largest Inuit community, it shouldn’t be taboo to consider closing communities that have no economic reason to exist and enabling relocation to the South. Decades ago, Newfoundland’s Premier Joey Smallwood faced this reality when he moved 30,000 people from remote outports.

With Canada’s Indigenous underclass doubling every 20 years, the despair of ethnicity-based marginalization in perpetuity is unconscionable. And the cost to taxpayers is unsustainable.

Colin Alexander was formerly publisher of the Yellowknife News of the North. He was the adviser on education for Ontario’s Royal Commission on the Northern Environment.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.