George Kakeway, leader of the Ojibwa Rat Portage band, stands by the shore of the shimmering Lake of the Woods and talks of his people’s grievances. Poor, uneducated, jobless, beset by alcoholism, they are a Third World community just up the road from the Kenora Golf and Country Club. Their plight is a cliché, if one is to believe the new survey of Indian conditions produced by the department of indian affairs. The department has withheld the report since its completion this spring, but Maclean's obtained a copy.
Its charts and statistics offer muted self-condemnation of the department’s
inability to improve the natives’ lot. But those charts are not on Kakeway’s mind. He’s talking about marinas and log cabins.
The Rat Portage band, 250 strong, owns about 48 km of shoreline on the lake. Hundreds of pleasure boats pass by the reserve each week. Ten years ago the band thought it would be smart to build a marina to serve the traffic. The seven or eight new jobs would about double the number of people employed on the reserve. After 10 years they got tired of the stalling from Indian Affairs, says Kakeway. They bypassed the department and got funding from another agency. Now Indian Affairs wants to help. “I guess they want part of the credit,” says Kakeway. There are another 50,000 Indians on 2,200 other reserves across the country still unemployed.
Kakeway has little good to say about Indian Affairs. In its Indian Conditions: A Survey, the department takes a more circumspect look at itself. “The view was expressed [by Indians and department officials] that in some cases there was too much apparent haste to achieve results, and some programs, such as social assistance, were regarded as destructive,” reads one passage. “The
strength and stability of [Indian] family units appear to be eroding,” says another, blandly. Conditions on the reserves have improved in the past 20 years, states another passage, but there is “a significant increase in social problems among reserve Indians, particularly levels of alcoholism and welfare dependence.” These are surprising admissions, says one bureaucrat. “You must remember, the system is self-perpetuating. People can’t believe that what they’re doing is not useful.”
But the cool light of statistics cuts through the bureaucratese. Two out of every three Indians are unemployed. The use of social assistance and welfare by Indians has jumped from one-third of the population, in the mid-1960s, to half. In Manitoba and Saskatchewan, less than 15 per cent of Indian homes have running water or sewage disposal (at Rat Portage, none does, and there is no garbage collection). The number of natives choosing to live off reserves has nearly doubled since 1966 and now accounts for about one-third of the Indian population. The survey remarks that “poor on-reserve conditions appear to be the major factor in migration off reserves.” Don Moroz, Saskatchewan’s deputy minister of urban affairs, heads
a group studying living conditions for natives in the city. “Life is miserable < for them on the reserves,” he says. “The o housing is bad, many places have no g electricity or running water and on top § of that there is no work. It sort of K pushes them off the reserve.”
Perhaps most shocking are the rates of child mortality on the reserves—four times higher than the national average for children under age 5. A Kenora study shows that Indian children are admitted to hospital between five and 10 times more frequently for infectious diseases than the provincial average. The child-killers are gastroenteritis and pneumonia—but these diseases stem from malnutrition and poor sanitation, says Kenora’s district health director, Robert Muir. Children are dying, he says, “for lack of well-known and obvious solutions.”
In the waters near where the Rat Portage band will finally build its marina, a band member was found drowned two weeks ago. He had probably been drinking. “What else is there to do when there’s no work,” Kakeway states—as if it were a natural law. No one disputes the link between alcoholism and unemployment. Far more money is being spent in Kenora dealing with alcohol abuse, however, than on job creation. In this town of some 12,000 people, about $1.8 million is spent yearly on alcohol programs conducted by 50 agencies and 29 full-time staff. Most clients— roughly 80 per cent Indian—are treated at least three times a year. Wanting a
better success rate, the Ontario government sends any of its Kenora employees with alcohol problems to Thunder Bay or Toronto for treatment.
Ottawa commits just 6.6 per cent of its Indian-programs budget to fostering economic development, the survey reports. This is less than one-third of what it spends on welfare payments to Indians. “Some” government officials, the survey says, feel “very little in the way of self-sustaining economic development has been accomplished.”
Among Indian leaders, the government manpower programs take heavy criticism. “The things they’re training you for are not on the reserves,” says Colin Wasacase, a member of the Kenora Board of Education. “If you’re a
mechanic there’s no use going back to a reserve—there’s no garage or body shop there.” Wasacase says Ottawa must listen while Indians “identify their needs, not with the bureaucrats in Ottawa saying what they need.”
One of the most successful employment programs in Kenora was developed by a native, Maria Seymour. Her idea was simple: train people for jobs that are available. “We know what we need,” she says. “We don’t educate for the sake of education. We screen people when they come in and place them where they can succeed.” Applicants to her New Careers program are told they must learn to play the game. “We tell them at the start that if they want the job there are certain things they must do, like come into work at 9 instead of 9:30 and call in with an excuse instead of just not showing up,” Seymour says. “It has more impact coming from native people themselves. They have to learn to deal with the community—and the community is white.”
On the Rat Portage reserve the men are building log houses. About 11,000 new houses are needed to relieve overcrowding on reserves, the survey says, but Rat Portage gets just $71,000 a year for all its capital improvements. Eventually the band would like to use its building skills to build log cottages along its shoreline and rent these out to tourists. For all the building on the reserve, the men do not get any credit for
the experience which would ordinarily get them journeyman’s papers. Unable, therefore, to work off the reserve, they make about one-third the wage of a unionized craftsman five minutes down the road. “No experience and no education—it’s the old double whammy,” says Colin Wasacase.
Upriver from the reserve stands Devil’s Gap rock, where the Ojibwa once made offerings to some long-forgotten god. These days the tour-boat operators take the tourists there and tell the Indian legends. There is a lesson in such enterprise for young Indian leaders like Kakeway. “You’ve got to learn to think,” he says. “The important thing is to get involved, to go out and get it. Because if you don’t, well. . . .” And there is a certain eloquence in the garbage strewn in the nearby woods. The government has told the band the forest is too dry now to let them burn it.
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