After reading an editorial in The Globe and Mail this week written by a member of the Tyendinaga Mohawks of Bay of Quinte reserve near Belleville, Ontario, my knee-jerk reaction was a lack of sympathy. In writing “Why I won’t leave my native home” the author mourns the loss of her aboriginal community when she moves to Hamilton, Ontario for a month. Describing her feelings of displacement associated with being taken away from her native fishing and hunting grounds and the proximity of family, combined with the shock of living in a noisy, crowded city, Susan Bardy presents a naive view of life in the twenty-first century.
I grew up in a small community of thirty-five-hundred souls about twenty miles north of where Bardy resides on the shores of Lake Ontario. Growing up, I shared her love of nature’s proximity, having family and relatives living within walking distance, and the support of a community. It was an ideal childhood. But not sustainable. Most of the young people in my high school knew that upon graduation they would have to leave—for post-secondary education, to work at General Motors in Oshawa, to work in an office in Toronto, a factory in Peterborough or, in fact, to work at all. Jobs in small communities are limited and that’s a fact of life. And we need to work to live.
Expecting to continue a lifestyle that was sustainable when big businesses made buggy whips or ice boxes is no longer real life. Generations of family farms have been sold and redeveloped for this reason. Fishing families in the Maritimes have faced this reality. Hunters and trappers understand their days are numbered. That doesn’t mean they’re happy about the situation but it is a reality that must be faced. New enterprises have grown to replace former ones. Computer coders and programmers are in short supply as are health care workers, service providers, construction tradespeople and even entrepreneurs. Some of these jobs can be operated from home but most require moving to where there is the demand.
Don’t get me wrong. I am totally sympathetic to the problems of the native communities across Canada. The issues are painfully obvious and complex. But the blame and onus for providing solutions must not be borne entirely by the government. Growing up non-native in an isolated small town is not unlike growing up on a “rez” but without the influx of government (taxpayers’) money and social programmes. The government requires that natives live on reserves to reap their full benefits, which limits their mobility. If these benefits were portable, perhaps some people would choose to expand their horizons beyond isolated reserves and become part of a larger community. Former residents of small towns do this. Farmers do it. We love where we came from but life intervenes.
The destructive lifestyles and suicides inherent in many native reserves across Canada is a horrifying social problem. The status quo hasn’t worked and I’m hoping that people much smarter than I am can come up with the solution. I have ancestors who were native Canadian (I am, in fact, one-sixteenth aboriginal) and chose to look beyond the reservation for a sustainable lifestyle. Maintaining invisible walls around those living on reservations doesn’t work. Walls didn’t work in Berlin. The Iron Curtain didn’t work. Trump’s wall won’t work. The world is getting smaller.
While I understand and sympathize with Susan Bardy’s position, I do not condone it. We are living in the twenty-first century and life for her is no longer about hunting and fishing any more than it is for me about living in a small town with no hope for employment to support my family. Non-natives also left our culture and traditions, our community, our loving families, our closeness with nature, the graves of our ancestors. Non-natives also have to travel outside their communities to schools, health care, social services. It has nothing to do with race. There’s no hate involved. That’s just reality.