Handout System Failes Aboriginal Canadians

The London Free Press
Friday, November 17, 2000 

Despite the violence between natives and non-natives in Atlantic Canada last summer, Matthew Coon Come, Grand Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, told a gathering at Burnt Church, New Brunswick: “I believe all Canadians want fair and equitable solutions that will enable our people to get off welfare, get to work, raise our families and build vibrant communities.” 

On this point, Coon Come is right. However, in this same speech, he went on to draw the erroneous conclusion that, “For this to happen, we must regain access to and jurisdiction over lands, water and resources.” There is no reason for that assumption. The evidence is all against it. Consider the historical record. 

For hundreds of years, the various aboriginal factions that inhabited North America had complete control over all the vast land, water and natural resources in the entire continent. Yet these peoples were desperately poor. 

Most of the millions of immigrants who poured into North America over the past 100 years were also deeply impoverished. Many moved into bleak urban slums. They owned no land, no water and no natural resources. Yet within one or two generations, most of their descendants have prospered. What accounts for the difference? 

In The Economics and Politics of Race, Thomas Sowell explains it’s a question of human capital. “The real source of wealth,” he points out, “is the ability to produce — human capital — not the inventory of goods, equipment or paper assets in existence at a given time.” 

While formal schooling is a key element, Sowell notes human capital also includes many other important factors such as, “skills, discipline, organizational talents, foresight, frugality, or simply good health.” 

Many of the recent immigrants to North America who were desperately poor in physical resources had an abundance of this human capital. That is why their descendants have thrived. 

“Even those born into the wretched poverty of the 19th century Jewish immigrant neighbourhoods on the lower east side of New York,” writes Sowell, “were born into a set of centuries-old traditions, attitudes, values, and habits that were tailor-made for success in American society.” 

In contrast, no North American aboriginal could so much as read or write prior to the arrival of the European colonizers. In the Marshall Decision and Native Rights, Ken Coates observes that, up to the 1970s, only a small minority of Indians in Atlantic Canada had obtained a university education. “Most found themselves dragged into a cycle of dependency on government handouts,” he writes, “Drug and alcohol problems proliferated, as the young First Nations people of the Maritimes sought to identify for themselves a place in a regional society that shunned and ignored them.” 

These problems are hardly less acute today. They afflict indigenous peoples throughout the world. What is the solution? Like Coon Come, Coates thinks the answer lies in more government handouts in the form of a transfer of title to aboriginal peoples of land, water and natural resources. 

Sowell emphatically disagrees. On the basis of his worldwide study of the politics and economics of race, he warns race-based transfers do not solve the problems of poverty: They serve only to inflame racial tensions. 

Consider the impact of last fall’s ill-considered decision of the Supreme Court of Canada, conferring special status on Indians in the East Coast fishery. Coates observes: “First Nations and non-Aboriginal populations that had lived together with considerable comfort for years found themselves eyeing each other with suspicion and fury.” 

Yet Coates wants more of the same court- ordered transfers of resources to Indians and Innu. He is not alone. Speaking on behalf of the Chretien Liberals, Indian Affairs Minister Robert Nault hailed the Marshall decision. 

“This is about equality really,” he said. “It is about jobs.” 

Nault is wrong on both counts. The disastrous Marshall decision violated the principle of equality under the law and failed to help needy aboriginals to develop the human capital they need to prosper in a post-industrial economy. 

Canadian who want fair and equitable solutions to the problems of aboriginal poverty should vote for the Canadian Alliance. It’s the only party that recognizes “the current system has failed — and continues to fail — aboriginal Canadians from coast to coast.” 

Rory Leishman (rleishman@home.com) is a London freelance writer. His column appears Fridays.