Between 1879 and 1986 the government of Canada, aided by the churches, operated a residential school system for aboriginal children.
Following a policy of “aggressive assimilation”, children were taken by force from their families, kept in substandard conditions, and beaten for speaking their native tongues. Many were sexually abused.
Whether from disease, malnutrition, physical abuse, or suicide, an untold number never came home. Among those who did survive, many never successfully reintegrated into their communities. With neither language nor skills to connect them to their own people and little opportunity to make their way in the dominant culture, they became a lost generation, and then two lost generations, and then three.
Alcoholism, drug abuse, violence, chronic unemployment, poverty, homelessness, crime, and suicide are the inheritance of many of the residential school survivors. Last year, forced to acknowledge the crimes that our colonial forebears committed against these generations of children, the government made the ruinous decision to pay out cash settlements to individuals. In too many cases those payments added to the victims’ troubles. It’s not hard to predict what might happen when you give an unemployed homeless alcoholic $10,000, no strings attached.
There are bright spots in the lives of residential school survivors. Here in Whitehorse there is CAIRS, the Committee on Abuse in Residential Schools. Located downtown, the agency provides counselling, helps with settlement applications, and offers a drop-in centre and a workshop for the production of arts and crafts. Between 2007 and 2010 CAIRS provided these services at a cost to the federally funded Aboriginal Healing Foundation of about $200,000 a year. Now that money is gone, and CAIRS is struggling to keep its doors open.
What’s to be done? The country is broke. What with tax cuts and stimulus spending, we now face unprecedented deficits. We can’t go on funding every project. Oddly enough though, money does seem to turn up for really important projects. Take promoting the Conservative party in advance of an election, for instance.
Canada’s Economic Action Plan has run its course. The billions are spent, the potholes are fixed, the four-by-eight signs stand proudly all over the country proclaiming that the government rescued us all from the brink of disaster. But just in case you didn’t get the point, they’re about to spend $4 million on TV advertising to hammer it home.
Why do we need to know this? There is not one more penny to be allocated or applied for, no follow-up to be done, nothing to be added to the plan, nothing to be gained by trumpeting the results of the spending unless it is to place the scandal-ridden Conservative party in a better light at the public’s expense.
It is the prerogative of the government to determine spending priorities, and perhaps it’s no surprise that electing Conservatives takes precedence over funding programs for residential school survivors. As far back as 2006, when the CPC was first elected, Elections Canada refunded $800,000 to Conservative riding associations for their part in the crooked in-and-out financing scheme.
And speaking of that scheme, two of the senior Conservative fundraisers who are charged with elections fraud are senators. This is a favourite trick of both Liberals and Conservatives: having the taxpayer provide your bagmen with a senator’s salary of $130,000 per year certainly cuts down on party expenses.
All over the country lifesaving social programs are underfunded, cancelled, or threatened by cuts while the Harper government streams revenue toward its own reelection. The salary and office costs of a single senatorial bagman would fund CAIRS. The Elections Canada “refunds” to Conservative candidates of money they never spent would run the place for four years.
Canada has run up a significant deficit since Stephen Harper took power, and if he gets away with his latest multi-billion-dollar tax giveaway to corporations, that deficit will get bigger. If we’re going to get back in the black, we’ll need to cut spending somewhere. Here’s one suggestion: let’s cut the taxpayers’ contribution to Harper’s reelection. It’s something the country can certainly do without.
Al Pope won the Ma Murray Award for Best Columnist in BC/Yukon in 2010 and 2002. His novel, Bad Latitudes, is available in bookstores.