Feds Let Natives Down Again

An editorial comment written by Reuel S. Amdur

Aboriginals are faced with more than their share of problems. These problems result from various factors, including the fact that many First Nations have been isolated from contact with the general Canadian society, coming into contact in some cases with the least desirable aspects.

Additionally, they have a fairly recent history of cultural genocide, in which a deliberate program was put in place to rob them of language and culture. It is not surprising, then, that aboriginal communities have lower educational attainment, more poverty, more substance abuse, poorer health, and shorter life expectancy. Natives have the right to expect the Canadian government to address these problems. Unfortunately, the current government seems to be moving in reverse.

The health problems of native peoples cover a rage of issues: lack of safe drinking water on some reserves, poor housing, poverty, inadequate health care, and abuse of alcohol, drugs, and tobacco. Native life expectancy is seven years less than the national average. The recently announced government cuts to programs affect two areas of health, smoking and HIV-AIDS.

Smoking is a difficult issue for native communities. For one thing, some First Nations peoples use tobacco ceremonially, in peace pipes and medicine bundles. So it is necessary to be clear that ceremonial use does not justify more general use. Drinking wine at communion does not mean that it is okay to become an alcoholic. Another central factor is the easy availability of tobacco on reserves.

In Canadian society generally, one way in which tobacco use is discouraged is by high taxes, making it expensive to smoke. Tax-free cigarettes on reserves undermine that strategy. As well, with limited sources of livelihood available, some people open makeshift shops to sell cheap cigarettes to white people in nearby communities.

Clearly, coming to grips with the tobacco problem is many-faceted. Assembly of First Nations Grand Chief Phil Fontaine points out that 60% of natives smoke. To help curtail the problem a number of measures will be needed. Some attention will need to be given to the issue of price. As well, chiefs and elders need to become non-smoking role models.

One of the programs that the Harper Tories are choosing to kill is a program to develop strategies to curb smoking among aboriginals. Destroying this program will put another $10.8 million into the federal coffers. One hesitates to call this a saving.

HIV-AIDS is another challenge to aboriginals. The condition is spreading rapidly among aboriginals, not just among Two-Spirit people but also among intravenous drug users. In 2001, 3.3% of Canadians were aboriginals. Yet, over 12% of AIDS cases are aboriginals, and more than a quarter of HIV positive Canadians are native.

At some stage of the illness, there are sufferers who experience severe pain. As well, some react to the cocktail of medicines that they take by loss of appetite. Some have found pain relief and restoration of appetite by using marihuana. The Harper government has chosen to end research into the use of medical marihuana, ending a program that was to cost $4 million.

Kevin Barlow, Executive Director of the Canadian Aboriginal AIDS Network, charges that the Tories are simply anti-drug, that they “treat medical marihuana as if it is like using heroin or cocaine.” They are, he said, “blind to the reality that HIV positive people are facing”. While there are a number of areas where research is needed, he pointed to one: the quality of marihuana provided by the government to licensed users is “very poor”.

Not only health-related programs were cut by the government. They also cut an important literacy program. $17.7 million from Human Resources and Social Development Canada is to be slashed from literacy funding. The pain will be felt across the country. The Yukon Literacy Coalition appears ready to close its doors shortly, putting an end to a number of programs including those aimed at First Nations. The North West Territories Literacy Council will lose a third of its budget and will need to halt its community outreach program. Among the provinces, British Columbia’s training and development of literacy workers will likely have to go. Alberta is similarly imperiled. The Saskatchewan Literacy Network may simply have to throw in the towel. Ontario efforts with aboriginal people will be threatened. And so it goes.

Adult education for literacy is important for several reasons. It helps participants to be more productive and more able to improve their standard of living. It improves national productive capacity. And, when an adult goes to the effort to learn, it sets an important example for the children to remain in school and to value education.

Why is the Harper government cutting these programs, programs whose cost is relatively small in the broader picture? It plans to pare these programs and others to save $1 billion to pay down the debt. But last year we already had a surplus of $13.2 billion. Yes, we have a national debt, but we also have serious unmet needs. This government is not facing up to our social deficit, and needs of aboriginals in health, education, housing, employment, and income support are part of that social deficit. The social deficit which the Tories are ignoring becomes a social debt, a millstone around the neck of all Canadians.