At one point in my cross-country exploration of how natives
and non-natives get along, I felt I was witnessing a scene
straight out of the Deep South, with aboriginal Canadians
taking the place of blacks. Only a radical change in thinking,
and ending reserves as we know them, will make a real difference

Saturday, December 15, 2001 – Print Edition, Page F1

Depending on the day of the week, or his hair style, George Leach can be just about any kind of Canadian he wants. Urban hip. Rural cowboy. Angry Indian. Or loving dad. And on any given day, he may be all of the above, blending his many cultures, and his two nations, in a style that says as much about this country's racial hopes as it does about our troubled past.

The 25-year-old musician is much more than a hot new name on the blues scene and a talented actor on stage and screen. He has the ability to cross cultures as if skipping over a stream on his family's reserve outside Lillooet, B.C. He can mix riffs from Lenny Kravitz with chants from his Stl'atl'imx nation, just as easily as he captained his largely white high school's basketball team and now hangs out on Toronto's trendy Queen Street West.

"You don't want to be looked at as a professional Indian. At the same time, you don't want to assimilate," he says of his approach to music and life.

"I want to build a bridge between cultures."

Canada needs a lot of bridges, far more than we realize. For Leach, who stands with one foot on each side of the original Canadian divide, too many of us -- the professional Indians and the assimilators -- would prefer to stand toe to toe and lob contempt at each other, and disavow the sort of integration that he is seeking.

Even now in the 21st century -- his century -- he finds racism still runs deep, in the city and on the reserve. And it is more than simple prejudice. Canada is no South Africa, but there is enough of a fissure that it amounts to a subtle form of apartheid.

Intentionally or not, too much of Canada continues to push natives into a second-class carriage, and too many native leaders keep them there. In workplaces, sports teams, schools and places of worship, there are powerful divisions that perpetuate a two-tier society, the one that Paul Papigatuk, a Quebec Inuit leader, calls "our caste system."

In the big nickel mine on Papigatuk's people's land, I could not help but feel I was witnessing a scene out of the American South, with Inuit taking the place of blacks in the menial and unskilled jobs while whites held every position of authority above them.

That's not the mining company's fault. Decades of failed education, social and cultural policies, as well as retrograde attitudes among many aboriginal leaders, has ensured that most people in Papigatuk's village aren't qualified to do much more than hunt, fish and wash dishes.

To break the barriers, which is what most Canadians seem to want, we must do more than hope a few more like George Leach will come along. We also need to do more than bet on quick fixes, as one government after another has done for the past 40 years.

I came to this view as I travelled the country, meeting natives and non-natives and writing about our complex and often misunderstood relationship in very ordinary situations.

Through the first 13 parts of this series, it has become clear that regardless of the setting -- a hockey team, theatre group, tree nursery, high school -- centuries of contact have done precious little to bring us closer together.

What Canada can do to end its silent apartheid is to follow the lessons learned in dealing with poverty overseas. To start, our government must stop chasing symptoms, be they alcohol abuse or unemployment. And Canadians must stop asking: How do we fix the native problem?

We don't. We fix the relationship.

The repair work starts here, in the news media, and runs through the education system, where aboriginal relations continue to be treated as a novelty, when they're treated at all.

Canadians, both native and non-native, need a far more honest understanding of our history, and our ongoing relationship. Instead, from kindergarten to rocking chair, we get little more than a highlight reel of confrontations that affect only a small minority on both sides.

The relationship has to be changed as well, starting with the land claims and reserves that form the deepest roots of a Canadian apartheid.

Both federal and provincial levels of governments continue to spend billions of dollars a year on aboriginal social problems that show few signs of abating, while refusing to invest in the land disputes that continue to divide peoples. More money spent on land claims today could end far more money sucked away by the symptoms of alienation tomorrow.

But the federal government is dangerously moving in the other direction, looking for the quick fixes -- the Band-Aids of development -- to show to voters that the situation is not all hopeless. Without some effort at prevention, the wounds will continue to fester.

Another big step
toward preventing disenfranchisement would be to overhaul the reserve system.

Without fundamental changes to the legal structures and management of reserves, there is no just reason to maintain what have become a disgraceful Canadian version of American inner-city ghettos. Their appalling poverty, their epidemics of abuse against women and children, their rampant tendency toward corruption and nepotism -- these alone should be reason enough to close most reserves. But more fundamentally, their very existence segregates roughly half the native population from the rest of the country.

Fortunately, simply shutting down reserves is not the only solution. Properly endowed with a resource base, equipped with laws that protect individual liberties and property rights, and governed by a new era of local democracy and accountability, native reserves -- and aboriginal territories -- could thrive again as homelands for people who all too often feel alienated on their own land.

Ironically, while the federal government is trying to move in this direction -- albeit with the greatest of caution -- it is the native chiefs who are blocking the way. There is a valuable lesson to be learned here from overseas development, where the best intentions for democracy and accountability have gone astray at times simply because they were imposed from the outside.

The campaign for a new age of governance must come from within, and in some places it is. Small groups on reserves and in other aboriginal communities are increasingly willing to take on their chiefs, just as citizen movements have done for decades in other parts of Canada. The government, along with ordinary Canadians, needs to support more of these groups in order to foster a furious competition of ideas and policies.

Just as Canadians are doing overseas, we must scale back our native bureaucracy radically and redirect assistance to non-political citizen groups and community-based organizations serving basic human needs. The world over, they are proving to be more effective, efficient and transparent than big administrations.

This need not mean closing down the $5-billion-a-year Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development, though I met few people outside government who did not favour that idea. But it would have to be transformed into a smaller, leaner agency that selectively writes cheques, monitors the money and screams loudly when it sees fundamental rights abused.

Finally, there is a great opening for the private sector to do more, not just in terms of hiring, training and promoting aboriginal people, as good as that would be, but in forming joint ventures with aboriginal businesses.

Universities, struggling to boost native enrolment, have found how difficult the challenge can be. As the United States learned in its own efforts to improve opportunities for blacks, mere quotas tend to do little to improve the long-term chances for a people. There must be a sustained effort -- reaching into communities, identifying obstacles to recruitment, breaking down barriers to promotion -- that few businesses have been willing to commit to, at least not without the threat of government-imposed quotas.

To do better, the country's biggest employers, in business and government, need to set clear goals and timetables in terms of aboriginal hiring and contracting, at least if they are determined to do more than pay lip service to the obvious need.

Each of these measures
would help to address George Leach's quandary and a fundamental quandary facing Canada, which is to find ways for aboriginal peoples to join the mainstream at their discretion and for non-aboriginal peoples to make space for them.

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 tens of billions of dollars 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, was 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.

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, 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 may be 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 harming themselves. 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 are not always to be punished but to be learned from.

Canada's 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.

That natives have
a distinct view of life is a lesson George Leach learned from his father, a former Stl'atl'imx chief. The second of three sons, George learned to talk to the lake in front of their house, and to listen to it, which he still does whenever he returns to rural B.C. He also fasts for a couple of days, to cleanse his urban self.

Sometimes he wonders if he should go back to the simple rural life for good. But then he realizes the city is home to his agent, his producer and, most important, his audience. Like many natives, but few non-natives, Leach believes that he needs both societies, that he cannot get ahead in life being the "other."

In Lillooet, natives were expected to stick to one side of an invisible line that ran through the logging town of 5,000. Leach was always determined to cross it. In high school, he led the basketball team even though most natives kept to themselves. On the reserve, he learned to box with the native police force his father had formed, the first in the province.

Whenever he heard racist remarks on the court or in the ring, he let them roll off his back. Both communities, he learned young, had their prejudices. "Racism is racism," he says. "The only difference is we're not the dominant society."

After high school, Leach hit the road to see what lay beyond the Coast Mountains. Through Canada World Youth, he travelled to northern Thailand to pick durians on a farm for four months, and for the first time enjoyed his status as a local curiosity -- not as a native but as a Westerner.

A much bigger culture shock was awaiting him on the second leg of his work project, when he was assigned to a Holstein farm in Elmvale, Ont. His hosts were a devout Christian family, and an introduction to conservative Central Canada. Although Leach had seen racial tensions in Lillooet, natives at least had a firm place on the B.C. landscape. In Elmvale, he realized how insignificant they are to a large number of Canadians.

Faced with such a challenge, aboriginal people often feel they must assimilate or run back to the reserve, but Leach feels as native in a Queen Street bar as he does in a sweat lodge.

Of course, the solitudes he crossed to reach Toronto from Lillooet have been transformed since his father's youth. Young natives today are exposed to other cultures, involved in politics and engaged in commerce at a level their parents could not have imagined. Canada has also changed, becoming more urban, more diverse and more tolerant than most would have dreamed in the 1960s.

A cultural convergence is the most obvious change. It would be difficult to find a native community where satellite television has not supplanted elders as a primary source of ideas and values for children and fast foods have not replaced a diet once reliant on nature (a big concern, given the new plague of adult-onset diabetes).

Leach learned some of this when he came across Big Soul Productions, a TV and film company run by a new generation of natives who see their future -- a very aboriginal future -- in the mainstream, not on remote reserves and in isolated cultures.

Laura Milliken, one of the company's founders, had grown up in Toronto and did not realize what her ancestry was until Grade 4, when a teacher introduced her to the class as an "Indian." These days, she produces a TV series featuring successful natives for the Aboriginal People's Television Network, itself a sign of how natives have expanded their presence.

She also feels torn, wanting to promote her people but also succeed as an individual, which is why she isn't satisfied producing the National Aboriginal Achievement Awards. She wants to do the Junos. "I hate it when anyone calls me an aboriginal producer," she says. "I'm a producer. I don't want to be pigeonholed."

Still, she and her partners seem to be working out their own solution, in the form of a new urban Indian culture. It's what much of Canada's aboriginal future will depend on.

David Newhouse, an associate professor of native studies at Trent University, has detailed just how far this generation has come and how it seems to have done it without risking that dreaded word, assimilation.

He believes that native realities are now entirely different from those of 1969 when the federal government, on the advice of Jean Chrétien, then Indian affairs minister, issued a white paper promoting assimilation. Today, Newhouse argues, natives hold a much more prominent place in Canadian society -- from an art world that recognizes Haida masks and Inuit carvings to literature that promotes Tomson Highway and Thomas King.

The transformation is a result of native confidence as well as a growing awareness in the rest of society, Newhouse argues. Self-government has become a commonly accepted term, as native communities gain control -- for better or worse -- of their health care, education and social services. The land-claims process, while frustratingly slow, is also irreversible. And native concerns, once locked in the ghetto of the Indian Affairs Department, are now incorporated into the work of just about every major federal department and provincial government, not to mention the Prime Minister's Office and Supreme Court of Canada.

"We have moved from an official government policy of termination and assimilation to a reluctant acceptance of the inherent right of self-government," Newhouse writes. "This shows great determination, endurance, sacrifice, capacity for hard work and integrity."

This is hardly
surprising. The world over, cultures have progressed and thrived when forced to integrate with others, while those that are isolated all too frequently wither.

Saskatchewan actor and stage director Floyd Favel Starr discovered this while studying theatre in Denmark. Having grown up on the Poundmaker reserve northwest of Saskatoon, he often worried about assimilation. But then he met a Buddhist monk who spoke his own language, had his own cultural identity and yet was a man of the world. Starr realized how cloistered Canadian natives could be.

"There's no fear of assimilation if you practise your own culture and language," he argues. "Assimilation is not something to fear. Assimilation is up to the individual. In a way, assimilation is self-created."

The idea that natives are more exposed than ever to bigger cultures, and yet have a greater sense of self today than a generation ago, can be found among the many aboriginal groups pushing for their own churches, their own school systems, even their own Olympic hockey team. These are no longer signs of insecurity, but declarations of ownership.

Do they suggest that the image of a Canadian apartheid is overstated?

Sadly, no. As much as Leach, Milliken and Starr represent hope for both their nations and their country, they remain the exceptions. They live and work in non-native cities, and what can be said about them cannot be said of their reserve cousins.

For all that has changed in modern aboriginal life, the reserve system continues to isolate and stifle. It also remains the greatest wall between native and non-native Canada.

I was struck in my own travels to see how so many of the most confident, and by mainstream standards successful, natives I met -- digital entrepreneur John Bernard, corporate deal-maker Bernd Christmas, actress Edna Rain -- had spent a good chunk of their lives in integrated communities. They got beyond the walls that so many native leaders have built around their communities and reinforced with the steel of federal money.

I also came to believe that reserves do not have to be the psychological prisons that so many have become. They need not be the Canadian ghetto. Maureen Brown, a dynamic Cree in northern Manitoba, came to a better understanding of her reserve only when she left it as a young woman. Wanting to develop herself as an individual, she ended up in Vancouver.

But years later, as her own children were growing up amid a freedom she had not felt back home, she began to realize that they were also missing out on something. Security was one asset the reserve could offer that the city could not. So was a deeper connection with family, ancestors and land. This sense of place is as important as a sense of self, even for someone who has moved thousands of kilometres away.

Brown finally packed up her husband and kids and moved back to Manitoba, at least for a while. The kids are now growing up Cree, and renewing their mother's bond with culture and history. They are comfortable as citizens of two nations.

Most Canadians appear to be comfortable with this notion of citizens-plus, so much so that it is questioned only on the margins of political debate. The greater challenge for two nations trying to co-exist in a single country is in the management of each.

For too long the Canadian nation has tried to manage the affairs of the aboriginal nation. We still do. On one level, there is a practical need for this: Most aboriginal communities are too small to manage their affairs effectively without some external check on power.

To change this, a new age of accountability is needed desperately. It's what Robert Nault, the current Indian Affairs Minister, has been trying to do in his hope to amend the Indian Act with modern concepts of democracy. The Supreme Court has done even more, with its 1999 Corbiere decision that allows all eligible members of a band, whether on a reserve or off, to vote in its elections. Suddenly, chiefs and councils have to answer to people on both sides of the wall.

But ultimately to succeed, democratic reforms must come from within, and be developed, refined and cherished by the local population.

Such a democracy must also spread to economic interests, which remain communal on too many reserves. Without private property and the rights that go with it, without commercial interests that are distinct from political interests, without the very foundations of trade, investment and finance, few reserves can be expected to escape their isolation. They certainly won't do it relying on government assistance.

Many native communities are already showing the way, along with big business, which, frankly, hopes to avoid confrontation as it tries to secure access to resources and a local labour pool in remote places. From the diamond fields of the Arctic to the oil sands of Alberta and on to the fisheries of the Atlantic, no major business project is now undertaken without some consideration of native concerns. And usually a lot more, starting with a seat at the board table.

So, for all that needs to be done in terms of settling land claims, overhauling the reserve system and funding a better age of human development, a growing number of natives are taking matters into their own hands. These are the people who are comfortable in both cultures, never feeling like one was out to destroy the other, never sensing that one had cheated or the other had lost.

For this new
generation, the talk is no longer of assimilation. It is about integration, in which each part contributes to the whole.

Increasingly, natives like George Leach are taking the best of both worlds, and enriching both with their work. One by one, they are dismantling the hidden apartheid.

On Queen Street, with his earring and long hair, Leach blends into the hip crowd, even as he looks down the crowded sidewalk and says, only half-joking, "This is our land."

He likes the fact that he has both starred in aboriginal productions and won a non-aboriginal part in the TV show Nikita. He has no intention of spending his life typecast, in public or private. And he has very little interest in harping on the past.

"It's good to say, 'Hey we're here. We're in the now,' " he says of his ambitions. " 'Don't try to keep us in buckskins on the backs of horses.' "

That's why he called his first CD, released last year, Just Where I'm At. It could be the title for a new aboriginal policy.

After the CD came out, Leach went home to Lillooet for a few months, and made sure he played at both the white bar and the native community centre. He always does, figuring it's the only way his music can reach both communities.

But when he got to the sold-out Friendship Centre, and took the stage, he noticed something he had rarely seen before in his hometown, or anywhere else in Canada. The audience was half-native and half-white, and Leach could not have been more comfortable.

"Yes, I'm an aboriginal," he says, "but I'm also a human being."

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