Travelling across Canada's native divide, in every region of the country, I came across precious few communities or people who were doing this well. But that doesn't mean the challenge is insurmountable. The most basic solutions were put in place long ago, with basic human rights for all and special status for aboriginal peoples. And they were bolstered by financial aid, as Canada pumped more than $100-billion into natives' basic development needs.
Yet divided we remain. For all the good intentions, registered Indians are more than three times as likely as the rest of the population to die accidentally or violently. Alcohol-related deaths and drug-induced suicides are eight times higher than for the rest of Canada. Levels of tuberculosis infections, measured in 1993, are on par with Africa.
For aboriginal women - an oppressed group if Canada knows one - the rate of HIV infections is three times that of other Canadian women.
By almost any measure, natives live in a different world. They are six times more likely than other Canadians to be in prison. They are one-third as likely to be in the armed forces. And the odds are strong they will not finish high school, the most basic hurdle one must cross to enter today's workplace.
If apartheid were measured by results rather than intent, we would have it. Yet five years ago, when the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples pointed out that 50 per cent of aboriginal children, on and off reserve, live in poverty, government policy barely changed.
More surprisingly, Canadian attitudes have changed little too. Whether in the city or the countryside, I was struck by the disdain many non-natives have for natives - and vice versa.
Janet Dunnett, an Ottawa-based development worker, told me of her own experience when, through an ecumenical group, she tried to garner support for a social-justice movement supporting native land claims. The campaign was similar to the highly successful Jubilee Initiative she had joined to end Third World debt, but when it came to helping natives, she says, "wow, it was a hard sell."
Perhaps her audience was embittered by confrontation, lawsuits and, more recently, the politics of contempt that has come to represent aboriginal relations. Or perhaps it had heard too many tales about places like the Lake St. Martin First Nation in central Manitoba.
To see how misguided Canada's current approach to natives is, you need only visit the reserve's new health centre, a magnificent little building only a kilometre down a dirt road from the community it was built to serve - less distance than residents travel to buy groceries or go fishing. Diabetes and addictions afflict the community, yet its clinic, built last year for several million dollars, is largely ignored. Its reception area, featuring the latest in children's toys, seemed deserted when I visited. Its rooms were equally vacant, as they had been since a doctor from a neighbouring town stopped visiting, afraid that patients were hitting him up twice for prescriptions.
At least he came for a while. A full dental suite, with a well-stocked supply room, had yet to be used at all.
For all the angst about the natives' plight, Lake St. Martin is hardly the only reserve with a beautiful new clinic or school that isn't living up to expectations. Not that such failures are surprising, given that so many reserves have become, with the advent of limited self-government, despotic little socialist republics led by band councils that reward supporters and punish everyone else.
Of course, there are differences, if not an outright philosophical schism, between native and non-native Canada. Notions of community solidarity, even at the cost of individual liberty and privacy, are fundamental to many natives. Traditionally, they see their rights as communal rather than individual.
Many aboriginal communities have equally different notions of education, family and justice. Children are to learn traditions rather than question them. Family is to be extended, in numbers and responsibilities. And justice is a journey, not an exercise.
These, of course, are sweeping generalizations, but they illustrate how differing world views help to divide us - a lesson I learned in the kitchen of Maria and Walter Linklater, elders who have helped hundreds of children in Saskatoon's rough west end.
They have won accolades for their efforts, but refuse to intervene, to try to stop people from committing injustices. Maria says her native way is to let people follow their own path, even if it takes them through prison, to discover the Creator's truth. Mistakes, even murder, are not always to be punished but to be learned from.
Canada's mainstream justice system is learning from this approach, as many provinces experiment with "restorative justice," which seeks to heal rather than punish and addresses the victim as well as the perpetrator.
Yet many natives feel that they have much to gain from a mainstream approach and are fighting further segregation of the justice system. Some victims do not want to share a repentant feast with their rapist, as was recommended in one British Columbia case. They want him locked away.
Obviously, each system can learn something from the other.