Friday August 29, 2014

More needs to be done for First Nations


As this province leaps ahead to new levels of economic prosperity in the 21st century, you’d like to think that we’ve left our old problems behind.

Sadly, though, there are days when it only seems our old problems are getting worse.

One such problem is our relationship with First Nations people — specifically, the problems of their children growing up in a safer and secure environment.

Perhaps things have improved, marginally. But a few reminders of late suggest we still have a long ways to go.

About 13 years ago, I wrote a chapter in a book entitled “Writing off the Rural West” in which I explored the often difficult relationships between Saskatchewan’s First Nation communities and the rural farms and towns and small cities have surround them.

One example that I raised was that of one community in which it was a reasonably common practice to buy up then-cheap lots around your house in town just so that they wouldn’t be bought by Saskatchewan Housing and become homes to a First Nations family migrating from the nearby reserve.

This was often done for reasons that extend well beyond race. Such renters are not always good caretakers. A rundown property next to yours would devalue your own property — a tough pill to swallow in the days when housing in Saskatchewan was of considerably less value than it is now.

Our economy has changed significantly in the past decade and a half. Our property is worth more. But for many First Nations people, the boom has passed them by and they are struggling as much as ever.

Consider that recent news that close to 500 children — most of whom would be First Nations children — have died in the care of the Saskatchewan welfare system in the past two decades.

Not all these deaths were necessarily nefarious. Many had to do with pre-existing conditions. However, that these “pre-existing conditions” often have to Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) passed on from addicted parents suggests a cruel reality.

The next generation of First Nations children are being failed. It is the same thing that happened to the previous generation and the generation before that — many of whom were from the residential school era and some of whom suffered unspeakable abuses.

It’s not that we’ve turned a blind eye to the problem. We are sympathetic to the sad state of affairs. We blame the problem on the social services system that’s both overly bureaucratic and overburdened with what often seems to be growing caseloads.

We blame the lack of qualified foster homes — especially within the First Nations community where everyone would prefer First Nations children be raised.

We blame the poor work of First Nations child care services and we blame chiefs and band councils who often don’t do a good job of distributing what resources are available.

And we rightly blame the parents. Some are mere children, themselves. Some have their own addiction issues. All too many suffer from inadequate parenting skills that have been lost in the sad history of residential schools and the alcohol and drug addiction problems.

We blame the entire system and rightly point out a good job is the first step to solving anyone’s social problems.

But that so little has improved suggests that maybe we all should shoulder some of the blame.

Sure, we are all sympathetic to these babies and young First Nations children starting their lives with huge disadvantages that make a productive adulthood virtually impossible.

But we get too caught up in issues that don’t much matter, like a 13-year-old First Nations kid wearing a cheeky sweatshirt that is mostly about showing pride in her heritage.

Maybe we have made strides. But we all have to do better or the problem will only get worse.

Murray Mandryk has been covering provincial politics for over 22 years.



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