The tragedies of Attawapiskat – suicides, hopelessness and poverty – have touched us all. But what can we do?
Former prime minister Jean Chretien proposed shutting down that and perhaps other small, isolated settlements and shipping the residents elsewhere. But that ignores the feelings of the people who call these communities home.
Instead, there are steps we can take to bring long-term viability to remote First Nations settlements. They are not necessarily easy or quick, but they are viable.
Troubled communities need good governance, starting at the local level. Residents must have faith that their local leaders are acting in the best interests of everyone. Leaders must be seen to be serving the community, not being self-serving. They must use whatever resources they have to deal with the most urgent needs first. Then they need to attract outside resources (public or private) to help the community.
The federal First Nations Financial Transparency Act was a step in the right direction, providing the openness that good democracy requires and giving citizens some assurance that leaders act in their best interests. But recent proposed changes to the act would weaken it by reducing consequences for non-compliance.
When Canadians in the North lack adequate heat and housing, culture might be considered an unaffordable luxury. Exactly the opposite is true. A strong nation’s citizens must have sense of who they are, where they come from and what makes them unique, be it language, customs or way of life.
Young, bright, ambitious people leave small communities for greater opportunities. But places like Attawapiskat can give them reasons to come back to live, or provide resources and support. Culture, a sense of belonging and a sense of home maintain ties for those who leave and fosters the desire to return.
Connectivity is absolutely essential in the 21st century. Transportation ties are needed, but even more important is a viable, reliable electronic connection. New technology has made that possible and reasonably affordable, even in remote areas.
Access to the Internet significantly reduces many of the disadvantages of smallness and isolation. Banking can be done electronically. Getting education of almost all types is possible, though it requires more motivation outside a classroom. Reaching customers, suppliers and government agencies can be done in real time.
Electronic services are more costly to supply in small remote centres, but such connectivity is necessary today. Our telecommunication giants should become true national corporations by providing service throughout Canada, including to places like Attawapiskat, regardless of the cost.
A town, like a person, needs a source of income. Too often in Canada, a single mine, factory or forestry operation supports the job base and the tax base. If that one operation closes, it leaves the community without an economic leg to stand on.
There are alternatives. Local people can generate local businesses, selling goods and services in town (and thus making the community a more attractive place to live), and exporting goods and services throughout Canada and the world. To do this, connectivity again becomes crucial.
To be successful, a business, needs to ask and answer the entrepreneurial question: what good or service can I provide that someone would be willing and able to pay for?
Once the question is answered, then you must gain the the business and marketing skills needed to make your plan work. And, again, those skills are gained through the community’s connectivity.
The entrepreneurs of these communities should think small and local to start, and concentrate on high value. It is amazing what can be valuable. One First Nations woman sifted mud, packed it in fancy jars and sold it at high prices for mud pack facials. Wood and stone can be turned into art. Food stuffs – fish, meat and plants – can be processed, packaged and marketed as specialties. However, it is essential to add the value at the local level – goods sold in bulk to others means that someone else does the refining and marketing, and makes the lion’s share of profits.
With good governance, an honoured culture, connections, an entrepreneurial spirit and some patience, communities like Attawapiskat can thrive.
Troy Media columnist Roslyn Kunin is a consulting economist and speaker.
The views, opinions and positions expressed by columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of our publication.