Thursday, June 12, 2008

Obscuring the Point With Manufactured Controversy

The wolves are out for Pierre Poilievre -- never mind that he has a point

The Canadian political landscape is awash in outrage over some comments made by Nepean-Carleton Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre just hours before yesterday's historic residential schools apology.

In a radio interview with CFRA News Talk Radio, Poilievre questioned how effective the billions of dollars spent on reducing poverty on Canadian Indian reservations has been.

"We spend 10 billion dollars -- 10 billion dollars -- in annual spending this year alone now, that is an exceptional amount of money, and that is on top of all the resource revenue that goes to reserves that sit on petroleum products or sit on uranium mines, other things where companies have to pay them royalties," Poilevre noted. "And that's on top of all that money that they earn on their own reserves. That is an incredible amount of money."

"Now, you know, some of us are starting to ask: 'Are we really getting value for all of this money, and is more money really going to solve the problem?"

Of course, some people predictably don't like Poilievre's comments -- or, rather, like the opportunity to excoriate the Conservatives for a politically-incorrect gaffe.

In particular, Liberal Indian Affairs critic Anite Neville denounced Poilievre's comments as "ignorant" and "disgraceful".

"I invite him to take a tour of many of the First Nations communities in this country and see how people are living," she announced.

Now, there may be much to said about the timing of Poilievre's comments, or about his specific prescriptions for solving the problem (notably "hard work" and "independance" and "self-reliance").

But the real unfortunate twist -- for everyone involved -- in this particular controversy is that Poilievre hasn't said anything that Canadians don't already know: that our federal government spends billions of dollars per year on Indian reservations, with no discernable result to show for it.

Most Indian reservations are as impoverished as ever. Money alone hasn't solved this problem.

Canada's poverty-fighting measures on Indian reservations reflects William Easterly's two tragedies of poverty fighting. The first tragedy is the poverty itself, as poverty always is. The second tragedy reflects the fact that, for all the billions of dollars spent, there has been little discernable improvement in conditions on the reserves.

The sad truth of the matter is that Canada's Indian reservations have all too often been treated as a money pit in which various politicians and commentators have been more than content to pour billions of dollars into without any kind of accountability (accountability for how the money is spent, or even accountability for results) because, by golly, they don't have to live there.

A methodological shift is clearly needed regarding how Canadians approach poverty on Indian reservations.

The money, for the most part, should actually be treated as a non-issue. Fighting poverty costs money. How the money is actually spent is where the shift will be necessary.

It's impossible to believe that Canada's aboriginal population is so impoverished because they're all shiftless and lazy. In fact, many people who have actually worked with aboriginal people in the workforce know things to be quite different: like any other group of people, work ethic isn't a cultural trait -- it's a personal trait.

On Canada's Indian reservations there are thousands of individuals eager to build a better life for themselves, their families and their neighbours. They simply lack the resources to actually do it.

As Poilievre himself notes, a shift in spending away from funds being put into the hands of Band leadership -- who all too often turn out to be almost entirelty unaccountable -- is necessary. Instead, larger portions of federal funding should go toward microfinance that would allow those aboriginals so inclined to start small businesses and, in time, provide stable employment where it is needed the most.

By its very nature, this would also engender a shift in decision-making ability away from government bureaucrats and toward aboriginal community members who know best what their communities need.

In short, what is needed are fewer planners -- government bureaucrats who make funding decisions based on what they think is best -- and more seekers -- individual community members who know what their needs are, and just need the resources to meet them.

We as a country also need to realize that, no matter how much money is spent on fighting poverty on Indian reservations, there is no miracle cure for it. The dilemma of poverty on Indian reserves simply won't be solved tomorrow. Wiping out poverty on Canada's Indian reserves should be viewed as a 100-year project -- one that would have long ago been conluded if we had started on 1 July 1867 -- but one that we need to start making progress on now.

Poilievre is right to be alarmed by the amount of money spent on Indian reservations with no discernable improvement in conditions. Anite Neville should be, too, but unfortunately there's too little political gain in saying "I'm concerned about that, too."


  1. ANITA NEVILLE, Liberal aboriginal affairs critic:

    “I invite him to take a tour of many of the First Nations communities in this country and see how people are living.”


    “Pierre sounded like the old redneck hillbillies we used to make fun of in the old days. I think Pierre has done himself a great disservice . . . I think he’s damaged his career.”

    TRANSLATIONS into Plain Old English:

    ANITA NEVILLE, Liberal aboriginal affairs critic:

    “Indians are living like animals in dire poverty, which means that some evil *******s are pocketing all that crazy moolah”


    “Pierre sounded like the old poor dumb White folks who’d get red necks ‘cos they had to work out in the field all day like ********s, that we still make fun ‘cos we’re racist and class-obsessed and hate all rural and working class White pigs.”

  2. It's unfortunate that some politicians seem to think that addressing real issues could hurt their career.


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