OTTAWA - Great Depression-style unemployment rates, undrinkable water, rotting houses, teen suicides, and varying degrees of despair.
The living standards on Canada's Indian reserves are plunging further behind the rest of the country.
But John Duncan, minister of Indian and Northern Affairs Canada doesn’t see it that way.
Leaning forward across a conference table in his sixth floor Ottawa office overlooking Parliament Hill, he says: “I actually think there has been much progress and I am not a pessimist. I think things are moving in a very good direction. I’m quite optimistic.”
Others don’t share Duncan’s optimism.
The national chief of the Assembly of First Nations says the situation on many reserves is dire and is renewing his call on Stephen Harper to help come up with a strategy to “move beyond the Indian Act.”
“I’m hopeful that the Prime Minister will respond,” said Shawn Atleo.
"We need to work together. We can’t repeat the mistakes of the past."
The minister and the national chief's comments come in the wake of "Broken Peoples, Broken Policy" - a Toronto Star investigation into Canada’s broken Indian Act system. That investigation found a quarter of all First Nations were in financial trouble and that the economic crisis on many Indian reserves has become a meal ticket for the “Indian industry” — an army of consultants, lawyers and accountants who are sucking hundreds of millions of dollars out of First Nations and from federal government coffers.
The Star also found that Indian Affairs’ own staff had ballooned from 3,300 employees in 1995 to more than 5,100 today. This, while Indian Affairs’ own statistics showed the gap in the quality of life between those living on reserves and the rest of Canada is getting worse.
In a telephone interview last week, Atleo said he hoped the expose would reinvigorate his push for a new relationship between Ottawa and the 616 First Nations recognized under the Indian Act.
At the heart of the systemic flaws with the current system is the Indian Act itself, a piece of colonial legislation passed by Parliament in October 1876 as a means to protect, civilize and assimilate the Indian population.
Harry Swain, deputy minister of Indian Affairs during the 1990 Oka crisis, has called the act “a Victorian horror insufficiently updated and now in urgent need of replacement.”
Atleo says the time to move beyond the act is here and now. Though he says he believes the Prime Minister is on board for a major rethinking of the issue, the minister of Indian Affairs has yet to display the kind of vision that Atleo is calling out for.
Duncan, the sixth minister of Indian Affairs in the past decade, sat down with a Star reporter in his Ottawa office Wednesday.
“I’m not a great defender of the Indian Act,” Duncan, who has been minister for three months, said. “No Indian Affairs minister could have a greater legacy than to be the one to say, ‘I got rid of the Indian Act.’
“There’s no consensus (on a) way to get there right now.”
He would not commit to trying to scrap or replace the Indian Act, but said the Harper government is committed to an agenda of reconciliation with the country’s aboriginal population.
“We have bought into the need for reconciliation,” Duncan said. “We know we can’t move forward without doing that.”
That, he says, is in keeping with the report of the 1996 Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples which concluded that “The main policy direction, pursued for more than 150 years, first by colonial then by Canadian governments, has been wrong.”
In reality, the vast majority of the 400 recommendations put forward by that commission remain unfulfilled.
According to data coming out of Duncan’s ministry, the gap in the community wellbeing between people living on Indian reserves and the rest of Canada is growing.
Asked to comment on the data, the minster said the gap is misleading because not all reserves are being left behind.
Atleo though says focusing on the modest successes of certain Indian Act bands and neglecting the entrenched shortcomings of the Indian Act system detracts from a much needed debate on this country’s Indian policies which have left many bands in third world conditions.
“We can do better than this,” Atleo says.
Nearly $1 billion worth of Indian Affairs $7 billion budget is being used to cover the bureaucracy’s own operating expenses while a further $125 million a year is going to extensions of the Indian industry, something Swain describes as “a well-funded national disgrace.”
Asked to comment on the growing size of his ministry and of the Indian industry, Duncan would not even acknowledge that such an industry exists.
“We have due diligence in a way that has tended to grow our personnel because it takes personnel to do all of those jobs.
“We have to hire specific expertise in order to deal with very special circumstances . . . it costs money.”
In March, the Canadian government said it would take steps to endorse the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
That declaration passed in the United Nations General Assembly in 2007, with 144 countries voting in its favour. Partly because of land disputes, Canada voted against the declaration, which sets out human rights standards for indigenous populations around the world.
Duncan would not say when the government expected to actually make the endorsement.
“I think in all seriousness, the UN resolution will be endorsed in the way I describe ‘soon.’ ”