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Canada's aboriginal communities are being hit hard by H1N1, echoing an earlier pandemic.
More than 1 million Canadians identify themselves as aboriginal — 64 percent are members of First Nations (a group the law calls Indians), 30 percent are Metis (a distinctive cultural group that evolved from mixed marriages with early European settlers) and 4 percent are Inuit living in Canada’s Arctic.
Their plight has long been described as Canada’s national shame. Poverty, unemployment, health, education, housing — in all these areas the condition of aboriginal people is far worse than the Canadian average. Unemployment in some Indian reserves, for instance, is as high as 80 percent.
Almost half of Canada’s Indians live on 2,300 reserves. The Indian Act, a federal law, prevents them from obtaining title to land. Most of the reserve housing is subsidized by the federal government and owned by local Indian councils. Housing shortages — and overcrowding — are severe.
In the fall of 2005, a Cree reserve in northern Ontario was evacuated because of contaminated water. When the big city media from the south rushed to take a look, reporters found 230 houses for 1,600 people — an average of seven people to a house. Space was so tight some families were sleeping in shifts.
In any given year, it’s not unusual for almost 100 First Nation communities in Canada to be advised to boil water to make it safe to drink. The steam produced from the boiling feeds the mold in already poorly maintained houses, some of which don’t have indoor plumbing.
Not surprisingly, swine flu and other infections can spread through native communities like wildfire. The rate of tuberculosis among aboriginal Canadians is 20 times higher than among non-aboriginals, according to a federal government report in 2002.
When not fighting illnesses, many battle alcoholism, family breakdown, cultural collapse and an insensitive criminal justice system. Aboriginal Canadians make up 19 percent of inmates in federal penitentiaries but only 3 percent of the Canadian population. (Only Greenland and New Zealand have larger proportions of aboriginals in their populations.)
The federal government last year recognized its historical role in the breakdown of aboriginal societies. For much of the last century, the government conducted a policy of assimilation. About 150,000 aboriginal children were taken from their families and placed in religious “residential” schools, where they were often beaten and sexually abused.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper formally apologized and offered a $1.6 billion compensation plan for victims.
“The government now recognizes that the consequences of the Indian residential schools policy were profoundly negative and that this policy has had a lasting and damaging impact on aboriginal culture, heritage and language,” Harper told Parliament.
But Harper has been far less generous on other issues. He scrapped an accord that the former Liberal government signed with the 10 provincial premiers in 2005. Known as the Kelowna accord, it targeted $4.4 billion toward improving education and housing on reserves, and reducing youth suicides and infant mortality rates.
And, summers inevitably see members of Indian communities barricading highways, bridges or train tracks to protest inaction on land claims that drag on for decades.
They’ll no doubt be at the barricades again soon, if swine flu doesn’t get them first.
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