AGM 2017: Reconciliation Needs Problem Solvers

By Bolu Coker

Shaun Loney speaks to CPJ members in Winnipeg.

From the Catalyst, Summer 2017

At CPJ’s Annual General Meeting in Winnipeg, Shaun Loney delivered a keynote address on the real essence of reconciliation in Canadian society. Loney’s book, An Army of Problem Solvers, provides deep insights into the connections between reconciliation and economic prosperity in Indigenous communities.

At the AGM, Loney talked about the context in which he wrote his latest book. The notion of an army comprised of problem solvers goes against our contemporary understandings of the military’s place in social development. But Loney’s goal was to show that ordinary individuals could make a positive impact if given the right tools and resources to work collectively for their community’s benefit.

Loney noted that we need to change our approach to reconciliation and development. We must move our focus away from the problem to the problem solver. Indigenous communities do not have a shortage of problem solvers. However, “we have challenges because problem solvers find it difficult to do their work,” he stated.

For decades, the government’s approach to problem solving in Indigenous communities has been very punitive. Indigenous men and women make up a large proportion of Canada’s prison population. This is troubling because incarceration does not solve the deep-rooted social and economic challenges in Indigenous populations. And it does not address the legacy of residential schools in Indigenous communities.

This has entrenched a strong culture of dependency among Indigenous youth and adults, many of whom depend on social assistance to make ends meet. There are many more kids in government care now than there ever were in residential schools. Loney noted that Indigenous peoples do not want to be given handouts. They want to be self-sufficient, but they require access to opportunities for economic success.

Loney noted that the government’s obstructive economic policies that favour multinational food companies are detrimental to Indigenous peoples’ lives. He citied the debilitating role of the Indian Agent (government administrators) in both the residential school era and today.

Garden Hill, a community in northeastern Manitoba, currently faces a diabetes epidemic. There are more diabetic patients than health care services can afford to treat. And the government has no coherent plan to deal with the diabetic issue that Garden Hill and other Indigenous communities face.

It was not always this way for Garden Hill.

Loney said that the community has no words to describe healthy food, because they traditionally fed on a healthy diet, making it unnecessary to distinguish between what was wholesome and what was not. But processed foods were introduced for economic gain, at the expense of Indigenous peoples’ social enterprise and health. The Nutrition North Canada Program was developed to provide Northern communities with groceries manufactured from elsewhere. The government will not help to establish a subsidized Indigenous grocery store in Garden Hill because this violates a regulation that requires all “nutritious” groceries and produce in the North be flown in from outside the region. As members of Garden Hill would rather grow their own food, this presents a barrier to their economic prosperity.

Canada’s reconciliation efforts will be incomplete without an understanding of the economic independence of Indigenous peoples, says Loney. There are strong links between reconciliation and the economy that we must understand. Loney also noted that “reconciliation must create the conditions to allow local economies to re-emerge,” instead of enabling a structure of dependency that perpetually cripples Indigenous peoples’ potential for self-sufficiency. At the meeting, Loney emphasized many times that “Indigenous peoples do not need more money,” but the opportunities to realize their socio-economic potential.

“Poverty and privilege go hand in hand,” Loney noted. We must understand where our privilege comes from so that we do not dismiss people who find it difficult to overcome daily barriers we consider as easy.

Overall, Loney’s talk shed light on the reality of Canada’s progress on reconciliation. It reveals that we must work hard to ensure that such efforts are meaningful to the lives of Indigenous peoples, to provide them with an alternative to the status quo of economic dependency. It also shows that the journey to reconciliation is a collective one that everyone must take, and society’s collective understanding of power, privilege, and opportunity must be re-examined and challenged.

Read of review of Shaun Loney’s book An Army of Problem Solvers.

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