Scott Gilmore: The hard truth about remote communities

They will never be as healthy and prosperous as cities. And for Indigenous people who want to leave, there is no system to help them.

RCMP remain on scene of the house where the bodies of two brothers were found after a shooting last Friday in La Loche, SK. (Photograph by Chris Bolin)

RCMP remain on scene of the house where the bodies of two brothers were found after a shooting last Friday in La Loche, SK. (Photograph by Chris Bolin)

My last column was loudly shouted down with accusations of racism. I argued that isolated communities like La Loche, Sask., will always be far more disadvantaged compared to larger cities in the south; and therefore the best thing we can do for struggling families is to help them move if they want. This was interpreted by many as advocating for the forced relocation and assimilation of Canada’s Indigenous peoples. That’s nonsense, and it does not dissuade me from repeating this fact: for families living in places like La Loche, the single most effective step they can take to immediately improve their health, education, safety and income is to leave.

This is what happens when they do, according to StatsCan data: Aboriginal youth become twice as likely to graduate. Employment increases by 30 per cent. Income increases by 30 per cent. Aboriginal children become 40 per cent less likely to commit suicide. Infant mortality rates drop. Homicide rates drop. Life expectancy increases.

This is also true for non-Indigenous. Moving to the city will improve their health and lengthen their lives. They will work more and earn more. Their children will be four times less likely to commit suicide, and they will be far less likely to be robbed or murdered.

This is a universal truth. Remote communities from Brazil to Indonesia provide far less opportunity, money, health care and safety than cities. Which is why 40,000 Chinese and 100,000 Africans choose to move into cities every single day. In fact, globally over the next 30 years around the world, over two billion people will choose to build a better life by moving into cities.

Why are remote communities, such as Canadian reserves, so unhealthy? Our grim colonial history has definitely contributed to the endless cycle of violence. But it’s not the only reason. The same patterns exist in non-Aboriginal communities and in countries that were never colonized. It could be because many reserves were intentionally designed to fail, located on non-arable land and far from transportation routes. Or it may be the Indian Act that further hobbled them, forbidding farming for fear of unwanted competition for European immigrants.

And there is basic economics: larger communities achieve economies of scale which result in more doctors, better schools, cleaner water and more jobs. Isolated communities will always lag far behind urban centres.

This is obvious when you drive north to La Loche. You pass through many small towns like Marcelin, Leask and Shellbrook, all with empty store fronts and empty lots. Because the proportion of Canadians living in rural or remote communities has declined every single year since 1851, as families seek better futures in the city.

Understandably, most Indigenous Canadians have decided to do the same thing. Among First Nations communities, 57 per cent have already moved off of the reserves. For the broader Aboriginal community of 1.2 million, the number is even higher. And they are leaving on their own accord. There is no organized federal program to encourage or even help them to relocate. In fact, tentative efforts by the last government to create one were shut down due to fear over the expected political backlash.

As the reaction to my last column attests, Indigenous groups and their supporters are deeply suspicious about the idea of helping people to move off reserves. Given the centuries of violence, duplicity, mismanagement, neglect and abuse, this is not surprising. Nonetheless, it prevents us from having a rational conversation about what we can achieve now for suffering families.

Consider what we do for refugee families arriving in a Canadian city. They are immediately given housing, clothes, counselling, spending money, and even toys for the kids. Language classes are organized; social support networks are set up. Dozens of government agencies and private organizations mobilize to provide support over many years to ensure they thrive. Not surprisingly, in spite of the initial linguistic and cultural gaps, refugees immediately surpass Indigenous Canadians in all major indicators of well-being.

By contrast, when a family in La Loche chooses to move to Saskatoon to escape the violence and despair, they get nothing. In fact, they will likely lose access to some support programs. Evidently, we can’t even discuss what type of help they might want without being accused of promoting forced assimilation. As a result, important questions go unanswered: What reserve rights should urban Aboriginals keep? How can we ensure they maintain their cultural roots? Or, can we help them regularly visit their home reserve?

Instead we allow our long-term aspirations of somehow finally fixing the reserve system, the Indian Act, and the department of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada prevent us from doing more and helping more in the short term.

Spending more money, implementing all the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and reforming Indigenous governance all help. But let’s stop pretending that these things are some type of alchemy that will achieve something no other society in any other country has ever figured out: how to make poor and isolated communities just as healthy, safe, and prosperous as cities.

So the fact remains: for Indigenous families living on reserves, the single most effective thing they can do to improve their health, education, safety, and income is to leave. And if they make this choice, we have a moral obligation to give them at the very least the same support we provide refugees. There’s nothing racist about saying that out loud.


Scott Gilmore: The hard truth about remote communities

  1. Yet another thoughtful, well-considered article by Gilmore.

  2. It all sounds easy, doesn’t it. Just move to the nearest city and things become wonderful….because then they’ll be “just like us”
    But you cannot take a native with, say, a grade 5 “reserve education” in the back woods and move him to the nearest city, plonk him down on a street corner, and expect miracles.
    Native high school is not the same as regular high school.
    Walking on Portage and Main, is not the same as walking through the village in a hunter/gatherer society.
    Yet another attempt to assimilate natives, and they DON’T WANT TO BE ASSIMILATED. there are too many memories of residential schools, to allow that.
    We need a third option here….something that involves a transition team and agreement by all the groups

    • you need to read right to the end of the article.

  3. You are absolutely right, Mr. Gilmore, insofar as the need to provide the exact same supports to our indigenous people when they head to the cities as we are right now for Syrian refugees. But, you first need to ask the indigenous people of they want to live in a big city. And I suggest to you, that as our cities become more congested, as many in the world are now, remote communities might become more desirable. I think we should be able to do both well.

  4. What this article (and the last one) fails to discuss is the importance of land and place to Indigenous communities. Why do Indigenous peoples need to leave and relocate to urban areas? This is the answer if you want Indigenous peoples to assimilate, which they do not. This is another veiled form of colonialism, similar to the paternalistic views espoused by the government and its policies, which seem to think they know what is best for Indigenous peoples. Let’s call a spade a spade here.

    Indigenous peoples will tell us what is best for them, maybe we should listen. What are the motives for writing such a piece? Who is the author speaking for? Maybe we should ask communities what they want instead of speaking for them.

    Place and landscapes are integral to Indigenous cultures (and yes, there are many different ones across Canada). It’s not as simple as relocating to the city; the land houses their histories, memories, and ways of living. Essentially, the landscapes maintains their cultures. Relocation can’t erase most of the socio-economicl issues from of over 300 years of colonialism. Hey, remember when we relocated Indigenous children away from their communities and put them into schools? That was supposed to be for their own benefit. Sound familiar? I find it highly troubling that Maclean’s can’t find an Indigenous author to write about such a topic.

    • Kaleigh;
      Why would one have to be an Indigenous writer?
      The body of the article is full of very good points and at least a call to move things forward.
      I’m sorry if the false ‘firewalls of racism, unfairness, assimilation etc. etc.’ keep the whole situation in a state of stasis but at least Mr Gilmore points out numerous truths.
      Please for the sake of Indigenous People and Canadians as a whole these permanent trenchtown communities for a majority of reserves are a blight on the the first nation people.
      Love to get a Indigenous writer to present his/her ideas and/or solutions.

  5. Seems awfully white of you: why not roll up Atikokan, Chapleau or Moosonee (Thessalon is kind of pretty so we’ll keep that)? As the article points out, some native populations are centered in undesirable spots frequently on purpose. In Ontario, one group of Mississauga’ were relocated because their mills were too successful and their schools were better than those in Toronto, a group of Saugeen were booted along twice because they proved too good at farming, bought up failed settler farms, consistently voted against liquor sales and worst of all were mainly Methodists. Back in the day, Ontario had an idiot governor who reasoned logically that conflicts between natives and settlers could be avoided by moving them to places nobody would choose. The suggested solution is to leave it up to the victims to clean up the results of a legacy of malfeasance. Nice one.
    “Given the centuries of violence, duplicity, mismanagement, neglect and abuse, this is not surprising. Nonetheless, it prevents us from having a rational conversation about what we can achieve now for suffering families.” Would you consent to having a rational discussion starting with having your butt thoroughly kicked? Somewhere in there is the implication either that neglect and abuse no longer exists or that the problems can be, as ever, solved on the cheap – neither is true. It’s not even true that residential schools have gone away when most natives from remote communities are located hundreds of miles away to attend high school. And, contrary to the insinuations, it’s not a matter of numbers if a remote community like Chapleau (apologies Chapleau) with only 2000 people can have 3 public schools and 2 high schools – it’s only a matter of who’s running and paying for things i.e. the province or the fed. I can’t imagine sending a 14 year old from a small town hundreds of miles away from parents and community to attend school – the fact that it succeeds at all is the wonder. And the author is playing fast and loose with the data when he says “Aboriginal youth become twice as likely to graduate” – what on reserve high schools is he talking about? Graduation rate off-reserve is 36% which is actually less than some on reserve schools: what is true is that native students living away from home have half the graduation rate of non-native students living at home.

    • There are 3 separate school boards operating schools in Chapleau. It seems extremely inefficient to have 3 different administrations managing schools in a town of 2,000 people. Maybe the problem is not that there is not enough money, but that it is spent without regard for the limited resources available.
      A quick look at the schools indicate a public school board, a catholic school board and a French catholic school board. Could political, religious or language agendas be hampering the efforts to provide good education to the children of chapleau?

  6. “They will never be as healthy and prosperous as cities”. What a ridiculous comment to make.There is nothing healthy about living in a concrete jungle a.k.a.city. The only bonus to residing in a city is the convenience of things, getting to the stores & malls and places are open late etc..and pizza delivery at 2-3 in the morning. I originally come from the city and moved to the country,small community 3 decades ago and wouldn’t trade it for the world.Cleaner air & water,less cars & traffic,less noise,more tree’s nature & animals,more freedom, less concrete,less pollution,less crime,more garden’s, farmers ,less chaos,nicer people etc..etc..etc..I could go on and on.You couldn’t pay me to move back to the city because it doesn’t offer the above mentioned,not to forget to mention the expense of city living which is horrendous. Am I rich & prosperous in the $$ sense because I’m now a country bumpkin? Heck no,but I’m rich otherwise and get by.I have a home, job, roof over my head,food in the fridge & cupboards and the bills get paid. I’m richer in life than I ever was living in the city.Its nice to visit one but even nicer to get out of it.

    • How isolated is your small community? This is not about city vs. country, it’s about the conditions in very remote, isolated communities. Perhaps you community just that, but most of Canada’s rural population is not actually very far removed from larger towns and cities.

    • You say that your have a job – there are very few employment opportunities in Attawapiskat.

  7. So commentators who do not support Gilmore’s suggestion are saying that indigenous people living in remote communities should *NOT* be given government support should they decide on their own volition to move to more economically viable locations?

  8. I call foul on the premise that reserves are remote communities.

    Not all of them are.

    I live about a half mile from 3 of them.

    They’re all in the Metro Vancouver area.

    Friends of ours live on these reserves.

    They work with us, off reserve.

    They go to school with us, off reserve.

    Why should they leave their reserves?

    • I think it’s clear that reserves within, or close to, a large city are not what’s being discussed here.

    • How do they deal with education and health care on reserve for these communities? Is it similar in quality to what is offered off reserve?

      I took from the article that remote communities, both FN and non FN, have the same outlook.

  9. An utterly simplistic article, and naive, to boot. Gilmore seems to specialize in not understanding the north, its history and people. What about trying for an article about the STRENGTHS of the north, including its “isolated” areas, and the WEAKNESSES of the urban south, where Gilmore wants to send Aboriginal people of the north, to live in fictional safety and affluence?

    • Because whatever strengths the north has, they apparently don’t help with things like mental health and employment. Some super-urban areas like Toronto certainly have weaknesses but there’s a whole gradient of community size with varying advantages and disadvantages. Mr. Gilmore (and StatsCan) is saying that on the whole, a city or large town is better for employment and mental health.

  10. this may be a partial solution …………. cities are not perfect —– just look at the thunder bay situation —– or Helen Betty Osbourne incident …………there are a number of things ==== a generalized position like “move the grass is greener over there” is not the answer ….over the years there have been various influences that can be bad or worse or better with the stay or go question……. you have to remember these were self-sustaining communities at one time — can they be again? ——– possibly but not to be a city ………….. if cities were perfect — there would be no murders……… no pollution ………. different places are perfect for different people ……. Moving to a city is not perfection — otherwise there would be no bedroom communities ………..

  11. It’s good to see a factual based approach. We can’t reach the best solution to the problem until we’ve looked at all possible solutions. The knee-jerk emotional responses hinder that discussion. I don’t think Mr. Gilmore ever said we should force people to go anywhere but just give them the means to go if they want. If people want a good standard of living, they need income and thus a job. Are companies moving to the areas in question? No. So we need a more permanent solution and the means for people to adapt to it. The alternative of a continual cycle of poverty does not seem good to anyone.

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