If relocation is the answer, what is the question?

“All right,” said Deep Thought. “The Answer to the Great Question…”
“Yes..!”
“Of Life, the Universe and Everything…” said Deep Thought.
“Yes…!”
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“Is…”
“Yes…!!!…?”
“Forty-two,” said Deep Thought, with infinite majesty and calm.”
Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

A consistent theme throughout the history of colonization is relocation of Indigenous peoples. Relocation has been touted as the “answer” so many times, we often forget to focus on what the question is. What is relocation the answer to?

As I so often do, I want to turn your attention to the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (RCAP), and two sections in particular which provide some much needed context for every armchair pundit out there telling Indigenous people we need to move to the urban south.

First, the section directly following “Contact and Cooperation”, is “Displacement and Assimilation“. In the late 1700s and early 1800s, there was massive pressure on Indigenous peoples in the Maritimes to relocate into smaller and smaller reserve communities to free up land for Loyalists who flooded into the area after the American Revolution. Immigration from the British Isles also increased dramatically, and colonial authorities could not, or would not, do anything about those people squatting on Indigenous lands. The RCAP uses a more blunt phrase, calling this “illegal occupation”, and it was, even by colonial standards.

Diseases continued to decimate Indigenous populations, freeing up more land and access to resources, while also mightily disrupting Indigenous societies. The fur-trade economy was tanking in the east, which ended the prosperity some Indigenous peoples had managed to find through their participation. Instead of being able to support themselves on the land they way they had done for thousands of years, eastern Nations found themselves being denied access to fish, timber and other vital resources. European Settlers regarded Indigenous peoples as impediments to “productive development” and muscled them out of access to the colony’s growing riches.

Indigenous peoples were dispossessed of the lands that once supported them, ravaged by diseases made worse by crowding and lack of access to essentials, cut out of an economy that required them to accept all of these conditions in exchange for a pittance of the wealth extracted from their territories, disguised as “relief payments”. Sound familiar? It should. It is literally the story of every isolated Indigenous community in Canada, right now.

As the colony expanded and thrived because of the lands and resources opened up by the displacement of Indigenous peoples, the dominant view in the colony was that Indigenous peoples were a burden on hardworking colonists, “little more than an unproductive drain on the public purse”.

During this period, relocation of Indigenous peoples was the answer. The question was, “how can the colony best profit from the resources of these lands”. All the policies that followed reaffirmed and cemented this, moving west and displacing Indigenous peoples from sea, to sea, to sea.

That was hundreds of years ago! Things have changed!

Ah yes. We might quibble on the details and the intentions, but the historical record is pretty clear on the fact that Indigenous peoples were displaced during those “bad old times”. Surely the question changed after that, and relocation was really about the well-being of Indigenous peoples, rather than the wants of the colonists?

Back to the RCAP, in a section that is a must read for Scott Gilmore and the rest of the people being paid actual dollars right now to write about their shiny, innovative ideas about how Indigenous peoples need to move: Relocation of Aboriginal communities.

“Relocation was used to solve specific problems perceived by government or other agencies. In some cases, relocation was part of other changes in the lives of Aboriginal people — changes that were often the result of other government policies.” – RCAP, Why Relocations Took Place

The RCAP split relocations into two broad groups: Development relocations and administrative relocations.

Development relocations are the consequence of national development policies whose stated purpose is primarily to ‘benefit’ the relocatees or get them out of the way of proposed industrial projects.”

Administrative relocations are moves carried out to facilitate the operation of government or address the perceived needs of Aboriginal people.”

A number of examples of each are given, and I really encourage you to read this history more thoroughly. I am going to give you a much more condensed version. As you read the following, please note how the rationales for many of these relocations are being trotted out again, right now. Talk about history repeating!

Development relocations

Many First Nations were relocated to make way for agricultural development. This included the Ojibwa on the Saugeen Peninsula in Ontario, and the Métis of Ste. Madeleine, Manitoba. The former occurred in the 1830s, the latter in the 1930s. Plus ça change…

The Songhees reserve in Victoria was moved in 1911 to make way for urban development. Then there were relocations to make way for hydro projects like those that displaced the Cheslatta Carrier Nation for the Kemano dam in the 1950s and the Chemawawin Cree for the Grand Rapids hydro dam in Manitoba a few years later.

The answer was relocation. What was the question?

“How can the colonial state gain access to land and resources?”

From the 1700s on, this question remained the same. Relocation was but one of the many answers.

These days, it’s not so easy to move Indigenous peoples in the name of development. The James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement, (JBNQA) signed in 1975 after immense political pressure, protest and advocacy on the part of the Cree of Eeyou Istchee and the Inuit of Nunavik, made way for a massive hydroelectric project located in the north that supplies cheap and plentiful electricity to the urban south. Pressure from the Cree and Inuit ensured that there would at least be some compensation for the territories to be flooded, and the disruption that was caused.

Not a single Inuit village in Nunavik is connected to the hydroelectrical grid. They all have to rely on diesel fueled power plants while the urban south receives relatively clean energy with minimal disruption to its physical terrain. The JBNQA merely signaled a shift in “business as usual” and Constitutional protections from 1982 on have continued the trend.

In the present day, if Canada wants to access natural resources (and by god does it ever), it can no longer move a community wholesale in order to get at them. Now, Canada must make an effort to consult with First Nations, though it is clear that Canada denies First Nations the right to say no to a development. (Consent without the power to say no? In no other aspect of life is such a thing actually called “consent”.)

Canada must also be seen to allow some small amount of the billions of dollars of profit extracted from Indigenous territories to trickle into Indigenous communities. This it does while colonists, oops I mean Canadians, bemoan the burden on the “public purse”.

Since Canada can no longer pursue non-consensual development relocations during the process of non-consensual resource extraction, the voluntary movement of communities would make things a heck of a lot easier.

“How can the colonial state gain access to land and resources?” is still the question.

The answer is still relocation, but a “kinder, gentler, more voluntary” relocation apparently.

Administrative relocations

From the 1940s to the late 1960s, after already being relocated onto reserves, a number of Indigenous communities across Canada were amalgamated and centralized to make it easier and cheaper to deliver government services. This included the Mi’kmaq in Nova Scotia, the Gwa’Sala and ‘Nakwaxda’xw in British Columbia, the Mushuau Innu and Inuit in Labrador, the Sayisi Dene in northern Manitoba, and the Yukon First Nations.

The answer was relocation. What was the question?

“How do we make it easier and less expensive to deliver government services to Indigenous peoples?”

Folks aren’t talking much about the other question, the one about accessing lands and resources. The current debate, same as the old debate, is centered entirely around the quality of life in isolated Indigenous communities. The fact that it is expensive and difficult to provide government services in these communities is itself presented as evidence that nothing short of relocation will improve living standards for these populations. The claim is that Canada has tried to provide these services, but it didn’t work, and things are getting worse.

This is egregiously untrue. I mean…not just a little untrue, this is actually a monstrous lie. As one example, the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal just ruled that Canada is actively discriminating against First Nations children living on reserve, by funding them less than their non-Indigenous and off-reserve counterparts! In fact in every area you can imagine, from education, to health, to access to drinking water and housing, First Nations communities receive less overall support than everyone else. We don’t know if isolated Indigenous communities would be successful with adequate funding because they have never, ever received adequate funding.

The Scott Gilmores of the world need to stop declaring that “we tried and failed” when the truth is…no. You never tried equitable funding. Not ever. What you have tried, again and again and again, and again and again…is relocation. And it has always had disastrous consequences.

The fallout of relocations

The RCAP did not just detail relocations, it also studied the impact that being relocated had on the people of these communities. This is something that has been very well researched, and is entirely absent from all of the commentary going on right now about how isolated communities need to move to improve their conditions.

The first consequence of relocations, forced or voluntary (as the new model seems to require) is the severing of Indigenous people’s relationship to their land, environment and culture. Indigenous peoples are incredibly diverse, and so are our cultures. We cannot simply pack them up, move them to a foreign environment, and carry on as though nothing happened.

Kinship, economic, political and spiritual bonds are weakened or outright destroyed. The result of such loss is devastating. If you cannot understand how this is possible, think of why Residential School survivors are so scarred. It was not just the abuse endured within those systems, it was the loss of kinship ties, and ties to land and culture.

Right now, the focus is on the epidemic of suicides in Indigenous communities. Well, the RCAP has this to say:

“In our special report on suicide among Aboriginal people, we discussed the factors that contribute to culture stress. Perhaps the most significant are loss of land, loss of control over living conditions and restricted economic opportunity. In turn, we found in our research for that report, culture stress has a central role in predisposing Aboriginal people to suicide, self-injury and other self-destructive behaviours. “

Relocation is not truly voluntary when conditions have been created in Indigenous communities that ensure people are living on the edge, with few to no opportunities to be healthy, vibrant and self-determining. When the subjects are not Indigenous peoples in Canada, we call people who flee such situations “economic migrants”. We decry the states that have allowed such people to suffer so extremely that they must uproot themselves to seek a place their basic human needs can be met.

Previous experiences have shown that relocation is directly linked to an increase in self-injury and suicide among Indigenous peoples. The situation is already dire, and people are seriously proposing “solutions” that history shows us will almost certainly make things even worse.

Economic opportunities will probably balance that out, right?

Traditionally the second consequences of relocation was economic dependency at levels so much worse than what existed when people remained in their communities. This was due to the fact that formerly self-sufficient peoples were thrust into unfamiliar and unwelcoming economic circumstances… on reserves.

The reserves were designed to be convenient for colonial authorities, they were never designed to have economic opportunities much past menial and part time labour for residents. The fact that the reserve model continues to lack economic opportunities simply means that the model is working just as it was meant to.

Right now, many people are arguing that the only alternative to the colonially created reserve system is integration into urban centres where there is more economic possibility.

This overlooks that Indigenous peoples are already massively urbanized, with over half living in a town or city. While this does not compare to the 80% of non-Indigenous Canadians that are urbanized, it does at least give us a large sample size to examine.

If over 50% of Indigenous peoples are already “relocated” (some of whom have been urbanized for generations), then surely over 50% of Indigenous peoples are experiencing the positive outcomes that relocation is supposed to provide?

Nope, hate to burst your bubble. While there are some slight improvements in terms of educational attainment, job opportunities and earnings, urbanization (relocation) is hardly the panacea it is being presented as.

For example, only 8% of Status Indians living off reserve have a University degree. Okay so that’s pretty dismal, but it’s probably way better than those living on reserve, right? Well it’s better, it’s just not a heck of a lot better; 5% of Status Indians on reserve have post-secondary degrees which is the same percentage of Inuit who have post-secondary degrees.

Having a post-secondary degree seems to be a huge determinant of income equity with non-Indigenous peoples, but achieving that level of education is difficult when 29% of Indigenous people have less than a high-school education. For those without a university degree, the income disparity is shocking.

“While income disparity between Aboriginal peoples and the rest of Canadians narrowed slightly between 1996 and 2006, at this rate it would take 63 years for the gap to be erased.
The study reveals income inequality persists no matter where Aboriginal peoples living in Canada. The income gap in urban settings is $7,083 higher in urban settings and $4,492 higher in rural settings. Non-Aboriginal people working on urban reserves earn 34% more than First Nation workers. On rural reserves, non-Aboriginal Canadians make 88% more than their First Nation colleagues.” – The Income Gap Between Aboriginal Peoples and the Rest of Canada

There are a lot of reasons Indigenous peoples are not doing as well in urban centres as people insist we must be, and there is a huge discussion to be had about that. One that can literally fill volumes. Fundamentally, many of the same structural impediments Indigenous peoples face in isolated communities, continue to be a factor in urban settings. Relocation does not address this.

The RCAP also looks at the negative health impacts of relocation, which are similar to what refugees experience when not settled with comprehensive supports. Depression, psychological stress, an increase in domestic violence, alcoholism, drug abuse and suicide. There are social and political effects as well, as kinship systems are strained or destroyed, and as the last vestiges of our legal and political orders are rendered invisible and subsumed into the Canadian system.

Your great ideas have been tried, and they failed miserably

So stop suggesting relocation as the obvious solution to problems most Canadians don’t actually understand. We have so. much. research that shows relocations are incredibly harmful, and that they have never solved the problem. Why don’t relocations work?

Because the problem is colonialism. Not isolation.

Indigenous peoples have had our lands and resources taken from us so that Canadians can benefit from these vast riches. Indigenous peoples have been met with violence of the most extreme kind for centuries; to the extent that our children were specifically targeted in order to destroy who we are as peoples. When we dare to raise our voices and ask to be beneficiaries of what was taken from us, we are vilified and characterized as obstacles to development, and drains on the public purse. That has not changed for over 300 years. STOP DOING THE SAME THING AND HOPING THE RESULTS WILL BE DIFFERENT, CANADA.

When these facts are overlooked because they cause discomfort, or are believed to be irrelevant, the solutions proffered cannot be anything but ill designed at best.

The RCAP estimated the cost of doing nothing, of not following its recommendations, of not fundamentally changing government policy, would be $7.5 billion dollars annually, and frankly I think they lowballed it. Nonetheless, closing the gap, funding Indigenous communities equally, and sharing in the wealth derived from Indigenous lands and resources may actually be much more expensive. Maybe that’s really all it comes down to. Maybe Canada is just too damn cheap to take action when Indigenous lives are at stake.

After all, rehashing “great ideas” doesn’t cost a single damn penny.

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16 Responses to If relocation is the answer, what is the question?


  1. OlympiasEpiriot says:

    Thank you. Very clear response.

  2. Connie Wente says:

    Thanks for this.

  3. attasamy says:

    Excellent Excellent Excellent! Thank you! (there is a typo in the Administrative Relocations section “theses populations”)

  4. frazzling says:

    I’m bookmarking this and will do what I can to give it wide distribution. Every Canadian needs to read this.

  5. john lavers says:

    very clear and succinct article. i shared on facebook. people need to read this.

  6. Teresa says:

    A good history lesson, we need to remember the injustice. But having the victim’s mentality only goes so far, and is not always good for one’s spirit.

    What are the answers then, if relocation is not an option? 5% of Attawapiskat’s population attempted suicide since September, mostly the young. Long-term continuing reliance on the government may not be good, or possible. There are few opportunities and overcrowding in Attawapiskat, some of the young will move away – how do we make it easier for these people to live in different places, full of strangers, not knowing the norms of behavior, to maintain their happines – how do we prevent the youth who move away from ending up at the hands of drug and drink? How do we prevent that if the young stay and there are few opportunities at home? Can people maintain the connection to the land if one moves? I think its’ possible.

    We do live in modern times. It is probably not possible to return completely to the way of life of the ancestors. But how do we live, if we need to be reliant on the modern world, be it to build our homes, eat much of our food, or to see doctors.

    • I’m sorry, I thought I was being clear enough on the solution…the one that people keep claiming has been tried and failed. Equitable and adequate funding.

      This is a common theme throughout the various detailed reports (or solution documents, if you want it made more clear) that already exist. As I pointed out on twitter recently, the RCAP created a 20 year roadmap with 444 recommendations, almost none of which were actually implemented. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission has 94 Calls to Action. If you only began with these 538 concrete solutions, never mind the reams of other reports specific to things like potable water and waste management, housing and so on, then we’d finally be making progress.

      People need to stop framing the issue as “throwing money at these communities with no plan” which is what is suggested by phrases like “long term continuing reliance on the government”. There are plans. There is research. We aren’t flailing around in the dark. What is lacking is political will.

      • Stephen D Green says:

        So, this entire funding issue is incredibly cloudy to most Canadians. What we see in both Federal and Provincial budgets is a whole bunch of funds allocated to Aboriginal projects; at last count some $12 billion (Provincial allocations vary) on an annual basis.

        Where does the money go?

  7. Marilyn Dumont says:

    Fantastic language, language and policy analysis, Merci, Hiy hiy

    Marilyn Dumont

  8. Janet Root says:

    Thank you for the reminder; we must not forget our history or it will repeat itself. I knew when Jean Chretien commented on the Attawapiskat crises it offended me and I couldn’t consciously reason exactly why. Now I know why, you have made it clear colonization comes in many forms. We dare not buy into it again. Chi Megwetch!

  9. Joëlle Morgan says:

    Settler woman here, working on these issues and questions from within different frameworks. So appreciate the ways you framed this conversation and articulate (and re-articulated in your responses) the ways forward. I am passing this along to as many people as I know. Gratitude for risking your thoughts and words.

  10. Ouno Design says:

    Such a helpful article for those of us non-indigenous people who need research and arguments to help make this case alongside you. Thanks so much. And for the post on the Harry Daniels case as well. Invaluable.

  11. Joe McGill says:

    Very well done. From a reader’s point of view you have given enough information to lay out the facts and keep me engaged. I can fully support the path you are asking to follow and to offer to the Indigenous people of Canada living on reserve and you have shown great respect for those living off reserve.
    My hope is that you will have many partners, that Indigenous People’s will find many partners in communities and that those partnerships will be built by your partners engaging in active listening, trust in your decision making, honouring of future commitments, and most importantly acting immediately without question to the 94 Calls to Action of the TRC.
    Posting your article to facebook in hopes my friends will take the time to read from top to bottom.

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