COLUMN: Federal ‘paternalism’ at root of SFN housing issue

The very unfortunate situation facing some tenants on the Semiahmoo First Nation lands is not the fault of the band council.

It is a clear example of why First Nations need to have treaties, and why federal government bureaucracy needs to be totally removed from administering the day-to-day lives of Aboriginal people. It is a searing indictment of the many wrongs inflicted on First Nations people from Canada’s beginning up to the present.

The immediate issue at hand is the need for non-native residents on the reserve lands to each come up with $50,000 to connect to the new water service. They were told last year there would be significant costs. The federal government has paid $338,000 to design a water system and the SFN has reached an agreement with Surrey to provide services. The federal government is covering costs for Aboriginal residents to connect, but not for other residents. Work is already underway. The water system will allow clean water to flow to residents, after facing a persistent boil-water advisory.

None of the non-native residents, some of whom have lived on reserve lands for decades, have leases. Those were cancelled by Indigenous Services Canada in 2008, because of the water issues. Some tenants say their agreements are with individual families. But it is important to remember that no one on the SFN lands owns their homes or land. It is owned by the Government of Canada “in reserve” for the members of the First Nation.

This type of land control is patronizing in the extreme. It goes back to the notion in the Indian Act (first passed in 1876) that First Nations people are childlike and unable to take care of their own affairs.

While there has been much progress in recent years in many parts of Canada, B.C. remains a laggard. Most First Nations in B.C. do not have treaties. Some without treaties have been able to take on more active management of their lands, and have enjoyed economic success. This has led to them being able to provide jobs and better conditions for their members. Others have not.

Semiahmoo First Nation’s reserve lands occupy a wonderful location on Semiahmoo Bay – an area where they have lived for countless generations. Despite all that, most people in Surrey and White Rock have been woefully ignorant of the actual living conditions.

To the best of my knowledge, there is no active move to engage in treaty talks with the Semiahmoo First Nation. White Rock was ready to cut off the few services it did provide. Thankfully, Surrey was ready to step in and there has been a more accommodating attitude from Ottawa.

Finally, finally, finally, the residents of the reserve lands will have access to the basic services that their neighbours in Surrey and White Rock take for granted.

MP Gordie Hogg is looking into what types of assistance are available for the affected residents who will have to move. This is important.

However, let’s not lose sight of the fact that the federal government’s paternalistic attitude towards First Nations people is at the root of this current problem. Much more needs to be done to right the many wrongs done by Ottawa.

Frank Bucholtz writes Wednesdays for Peace Arch News.

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