Bookreview-"From Wooden Ploughs to Welfare"

Lubicon Lake Indian Nation
Little Buffalo Lake, AB
FAX: 403-629-3939

Mailing address:
3536 - 106 Street
Edmonton, AB T6J 1A4
FAX: 403-437-0719

September 21, 1992

Enclosed for your information is a copy of a review of a book which provides background and insight into the current impasse with Lubicon settlement negotiations.

As with the Prairie Indians in the 1870s the Lubicons seek economic self-sufficiency. The last thing the Government of Canada wants is self-sufficient Indians able to stand up and fight for their rights.

As Faulkner so pointedly observed, "The past is not dead -- it's not even past."

The Globe and Mail, Saturday, August 29, 1992

OTTAWA's effort: No helping hand but a mortal blow


Why Indian Policy Failed in the Prairie Provinces

by Helen Buckley

McGill-Queen's University Press

209 pages, $34.95

Review by Geoffrey York

Aboriginal self-government has been on Canada's constitutional agenda for almost a decade now, yet many politicians and media commentators still claim to be baffled by the concept. As if confronted by some revolutionary new idea, they continue to ask the most basic of questions. The key questions about self-government were originally answered in 1983, when a committee of the House of Commons carefully researched the concept and strongly recommended its acceptance. The same questions were answered again from 1983 to 1987, when aboriginal self-government was exhaustively debated and demystified at a series of constitutional conferences.

If there are any Canadians who still have questions about the value of self-government today, they should buy a copy of Helen Buckley's new book, "From Wooden Ploughs to Welfare". It is a disturbing documentary of the failure of 125 years of federal Indian policies, and it concludes that Canada's aboriginal people will remain in a state of perpetual welfare dependency unless they regain the power to govern themselves.

Buckley is no sentimental dreamer. She is a hard-headed economist and longtime Finance Department official who has specialized in the problem of native economic development. Her book is a dispassionate dissection of the self-defeating policies of the federal Indian Affairs Department -- policies that have created a numbing climate of economic dependency in hundreds of native communities. Buckley has wielded her empirical tools to produce a fact-filled analysis that clearly demonstrates how Ottawa's paternalistic policies have become an expensive disaster.

The book focuses on the three Prairie Provinces, where the Indians are among the poorest in Canada. Their poverty is a direct result of federal neglect and discrimination, Buckley finds. At the time of the western treaties in the 1870s, many of the Prairie Indian bands were strongly interested in agriculture. Indeed, some bands made an impressive start -- breaking sod, planting crops, experimenting with the latest farming techniques, and even winning prizes at agricultural fairs. Yet within a few years, the Indian Affairs Department had begun to destroy the self-sufficiency of these bands. Their scythes and wooden ploughs (received as treaty payments) soon became obsolete, and from that point onward the Indians were deliberately kept at a permanent disadvantage compared to their white farming neighbours.

Federal agents took control of every aspect of the Indian reserves, often leasing out the best land at cheap rents to local white farmers, and requiring the Indians to get an official permit if they wanted to sell grain, buy cattle, or even to leave the reserve for a day. At a time when most settlers were getting 160 acres of land, the government had a policy of limiting the Indian families to a peasant-sized allotment of 40 acres each. While the white settlers were borrowing money from the banks to expand their operations, Indians could not legally mortgage their land. In the early years of the 20th century, much of the best land on Indian reserves was expropriated and given to nearby towns and cities.

In these early chapters, Buckley is building on the superb research of historian Sarah Carter, whose own study, "Lost Harvests", was published in 1990. But in her analysis of 20th-century government policies, Buckley makes a crucial contribution to our understanding of poverty and unemployment on Indian reserves. She shows that the federal government helped to stimulate the economic development of non-native businesses on the Prairies, while encouraging Indians to become dependent on welfare and social assistance. Only a tiny percentage of the Indian Affairs budget was spent on economic development; the vast majority of the federal money went to keeping aboriginal people on the welfare rolls. Their schools were neglected, while millions of dollars were spent on useless manpower courses and temporary make-work projects that never led to permanent jobs. Even in the 1980s and 1990s, less than 5 per cent of the department's budget was spent on economic development, while a growing percentage (as much as 27 per cent) was spent on welfare.

In recent years, federal rhetoric has been full of promises to allow native people to control their own destiny. In reality, Indian bands were burdened with a host of restrictions and bureaucratic requirements, so that they were just glorified cheque-writers for the Indian Affairs department. "It was still the department that determined what the programs were and what the bands could spend and, even in the narrow area that remained, it still had the power to veto band requests," Buckley says. "Each and every band was caught up in negotiations which were time-consuming and frustrating, and which often ended in failure."

The latest aboriginal economic development scheme, introduced in 1989, is slightly better than its predecessors. But the essential problem is the same: Ottawa is maintaining ultimate control of native programs, and the bureaucracy still has overwhelming power over the lives of Indian people. Buckley believes that the introduction of true self-government would produce a long-term cost savings for the federal government, since Indian reserves would gradually achieve a degree of economic independence. "Self- government is the change that would break the pattern," she says. It is a convincing argument, and it points the way to a a more hopeful future.

Geoffrey York, a parliamentary correspondent for The Globe and Mail, is the author of "The Dispossessed" and the co-author of "People of the Pines: The Warriors and the Legacy of Oka."