Saturday, October 10, 2009

Break the Cycle When They're Young

Vancouver a key piece of Canada's aboriginal puzzle

As the weather in most of Canada turns colder over the coming days and weeks, many homeless aboriginals will begin migrating west, to the BC coast.

They will share similar stories: the economic hardship of living on reservations, abysmal family conditions and substance abuse problems, and the strains of living under various other social ills.

Some living in Vancouver's Eastside may be tempted to view the influx of aboriginals as a problem. But for Canada there is actually an opportunity to be found among the social desolation these people have experienced.

Organizations like the Urban Native Youth Association deal with many of these issues first-hand. They're often the organizations these aboriginals turn to when the promise of newfound prosperity fails to materialize. “It’s the bright lights they talk about. But they come here and find out there’s not really many bright lights, or they’re not shining in our community,” explains UNYA executive director Lynda Gray. In Vancouver, aboriginals account for 30% of the city's homeless population. In the downtown Eastside, they account for 10% of the population, period.

The conditions there are symbolic of the suffering of aboriginals across Canada. Indeed, nearly every First Nation in Canada is represented among the downtown Eastside's population.

“It’s really a sign, a symptom of a larger problem of how native people exist within this community,” says Gray. “It’s the most blatant and obvious sign of damaged spirits.”

Canadians remain hopeful that the damaged spirits of Canada's aboriginals can be healed. But decades of ideologically-motivated aboriginal policies have failed to accomplish this important task.

As much as those who continue to push those discredited ideological policies may refuse to admit it, a change in approach is desperately needed. Vancouver's lower Eastside could serve as an invaluable policy laboratory.

Dissent to the discredited ideological coonsensus on the matter of aboriginal poverty and its accompanying ills tends to overwhelmingly favour breaking a perceived cycle of dependence by aboriginal people on government largesse.

As laudable a goal as this actually is, it cannot reasonably be accomplished until the task of abolishing the social ills that pervade amongst Canadian aboriginals -- both on- and off-reserve -- is well underway.

Dances With Dependency author Calvin Helin offers a solution that may surprise many of his critics -- healthy doses of community outreach. Moreover, Helin insists that this outreach needs to be focused on reaching children in order to break the spell that generations of dependency has cast over their culture.

“We need to be able to show kids that they have an opportunity to make their lives better and it can be something different from what they have experienced so far,” Helin insists. “Sometimes it may not be possible to reach the generation of their parents, so we need to get to the children ... In the Eastside there are a lot of kids who have both parents in jail or don’t get a meal in the morning, so we’ve got to reach them.”

Gray seems to agree with this particular sentiment, and notes that the promotion of aboriginal culture can help break these old cycles of dependence.

“I would say 90 to 99 per cent of aboriginals who are leading healthy, strong lives [are doing so] because they have a strong sense of self, primarily through culture,” Gray says.

Naturally, any outreach program should be rooted in Aboriginal culture, but there may be a need to reassess the current paradigms of the promotion of Aboriginal culture. Naturally, this assessment can really only be done by Aboriginals, and by Aboriginals alone.

But those who want to change the manner in which Aboriginal affairs policies are formulated need to understand that the best time to try to break these old cycles of dependency, by whatever means it is done, is when Aboriginals are young. It will continue to require a healthy government investment in Aboriginal education, health care, and poverty-fighting initiatives.

Breaking the cycle of government dependence -- actually not the same as convincing them to embrace "self-reliance", per se -- will be a long-term, not a short-term, project. And it will depend heavily on the success of poverty-fighting measures, which may depend upon successful policy experimentation in a real-life laboratory like Vancouver's downtown Eastside.

It wouldn't necessarily be a popular initiative -- treating human beings, particularly human beings as belleagured as Canada's aboriginal people, as if they were labrats (even in a benign policy experiment) rarely is.

But Canadians cannot afford to continue tolerating failed Aboriginal policy. The old way forward -- which has actually led us backward -- has failed. A new way forward is desperately needed.

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