Review of Children of the Broken Treaty: Canada’s Lost Promise and One Girl’s Dream by Charlie Angus. University of Regina Press (2015)
This book is inspired by the short but remarkable life of Shannen Koostachin, a gutsy school girl from the troubled Attawapiskat First Nation on the shores of James Bay. Tired of having portable class-rooms instead of a proper school, in 2008 she and two other Grade 8 students requested a meeting with Indian Affairs Minister Chuck Strahl to press their case for a new school, and refused to take no for an answer. They organized a national social media campaign among school children, resulting in thousands of letters, forcing the government to build the school. Tragically, Shannnen was killed two years later in a car accident. Her story has already been immortalized in a book and a movie, and in the Shannen’s Dream movement for First Nations education.
The book focuses on the James Bay Cree and their heroic struggle in the face of generations of government neglect. It gives a detailed blow-by-blow description of how they have been systematically short-changed for over a century by the Department of Indian Affairs. It starts with the visit of the infamous Canadian poet and deputy minister of Indian Affairs, Duncan Campbell Scott, to James Bay in 1905 for the signing of Treaty 9.
Charlie Angus has been an NDP M.P. for Timmins-James Bay since 2004. This book is also a first-person account of his frustrating dealings with Ottawa on behalf of his constituents. The two troubled First Nations of Attawapiskat and Kashechewan have been frequently in the news over the past 12 years, due to a succession of environmental and human crises, most recently a suicide epidemic among youth. In 2011 the hunger strike of Chief Theresa Spence over lack of housing provided a spark that helped ignite the national Idle No More movement among First Nations.
This northern riding is one of 121 in Ontario, yet accounts for almost 1/3 of the province’s land mass. Its economy is based on the resource extraction industries of mining and forestry, and includes the yet to be developed Ring of Fire chromium deposits. Until now these resources have been developed without the free, prior an informed consent of the region’s First Nations. Over the years billions of dollars have flowed out to absentee investors, while the aboriginal inhabitants are forced to live in poverty.
The Victor diamond mine, operated by the multinational diamond firm De Beers, is located 90 km. west of the Attawapiskat First Nation. It began production in 2008, and represents a $1.1 bn. investment providing 400 permanent jobs. It has yet to pay royalties to the Government of Ontario, as it is still “recouping its initial investment.”
The denial of basic services to the James Bay Cree under nearly 10 years of Conservative government characterized the Tories in other areas. But it is disturbing to learn that the same neglect of First Nations has been going on ever since Confederation, with Liberals forming government during most of that time.
The new Liberal government of Justin Trudeau has been saying a lot of the right things, professing to turn over a new leaf in Canada’s relations with its First Nations. But if at the same time they promise not to raise taxes on those who can afford to pay, they will always be able to fall back on the old excuse that funds are not available to pay for education, housing, clean water and health care for First Nations and other Canadians.
The resistance of the 1% to income redistribution must be confronted. Part of that confrontation means calling poverty what it is – the deliberate impoverishment of people in order to transfer wealth to the 1% via low wages and increased corporate profits. There are 118,000 millionaires and 5 billionaires in the city of Toronto, according to a U.K.-based wealth management firm. Money talks, especially in politics, and these are the people whose interests continue to be served by successive Canadian governments. Resistance by the James Bay Cree and other First Nations is an important part of the birthing of a new world, and calls for our full solidarity.