According to a report from the Public Health Agency of Canada, First Nation Canadians are 31 times more likely to contract tuberculosis than nonnatives. Shocking as this figure is, it’s far worse for Inuits, at a factor of 186.
TB, once a deadly scourge all over the world, is completely preventable. A single factor makes it hard to control: poverty. If there is one thing that Canada’s aboriginal communities have plenty of, it’s substandard, overcrowded, mouldy houses where only disease can prosper.
The figures on TB are consistent with other bleak statistics that face indigenous Canadians. A 1995 federal commission found evidence that suicide occurs in aboriginal communities at three times the national average, asserting that these figures “underestimate the total picture” because at least 25 per cent of accidental deaths are really unreported suicides.
Similar statistics are available for crime, alcoholism, drug addiction, incarceration – in fact, all of the ails of poverty. While there are other factors at play in the terrible inequities between indigenous and settler communities – residential school syndrome, for instance – the most glaring difference is that our communities are rich and their’s are poor.
The solution to poverty in indigenous communities is not simple. Employment opportunities are few in remote areas, high transportation costs make everything more expensive and access to education is much more difficult. It’s common to hear that you can’t solve these problems simply by throwing money at them.
But consider what happened recently when a large portion of the settler community was threatened with a plunge into poverty. Facing massive unemployment in cities that depend on the auto industry, the government of Canada threw $4 billion in emergency loans at the big car companies, not to save them from bankruptcy, but to keep them from moving all their factories to the US.
During the past year, the federal government has spent $30 billion on an economic stimulus package designed to prevent settler communities from falling into unemployment and poverty. We all know that this was not $30 billion we happened to have lying around. We had to borrow it, and now we have to pay it back.
The fact that even the deficit warriors of the Canadian Conservative party were willing to plunge the country into unprecedented debt in an attempt to control the so-called financial meltdown is indicative of the fact that we are not immune to the plight of our aboriginal neighbours.
The economy that keeps us prosperous is a less robust apparatus than we once thought. By leaping to rescue it from its own excesses we have collectively acknowledged that we too could end up in poverty. Like so many indigenous Canadians, we could be living in jobless communities, in overcrowded houses, boiling our water and weeping for our children.
So far, that’s not happening, and that’s at least in part because when we face that risk, our government recognizes it as an emergency, and responds by throwing money at it. It may not make the wisest use of that money, but the billions of dollars go a long way toward keeping us afloat.
So what’s going on that we don’t respond in the same manner to an ongoing, centuries-old emergency in aboriginal Canada? When an identifiable sector of our population faces Third World living conditions, why do we fail to respond?
Is it a matter of isolation – out of sight, out of mind? Is it that we are so accustomed to indigenous poverty that it blends in, so we never notice it? Or are we at root a racist society, so steeped in colonialism that we are willing to let the colonized people die off from poverty and neglect?
Al Pope won the 2002 Ma Murray Award for Best Columnist in BC/Yukon. His novel, Bad Latitudes, is available in bookstores.