City-dwellers by choice or by force?

This article is in response to Scott Gilmore’s “The hard truth about remote communities” published on the website

Following the shootings that occurred in the rural, northern Saskatchewan town of LaLoche, Scott Gilmore argued that the shooting was related to the socioeconomic hardships that tend to plague rural towns. While painting a general picture of the woes of rural life, he nevertheless focuses on the experiences of a group with establish communities in rural areas: Aboriginals. His prescription is that rural communities can simply not be saved, and it is best for those who reside in such areas to relocate to the city if they wish to see their quality of life improve. However, he recognizes this is easier said than done, and suggests the creation of a federal program offering financial and social resources to Aboriginals for an easier relocation process, much in the same way that the federal government is offering these resources to Syrian refugees.

While this seems like a noble objective, it is seriously flawed. Gilmore’s solution seems to completely ignore any notion of Aboriginal agency and self-determination. He is quick to cite sources like Stats Can to prove the benefits of moving off reserves:

Aboriginal youth become twice as likely to graduate. Employment increases by 30 per cent. Income increases by 30 per cent. Aboriginal children become 40 per cent less likelyΒ to commit suicide. Infant mortality rates drop. Homicide rates drop. Life expectancy increases

However, he fails to mention whether Aboriginal people have the desire to leave the reserves or not. Gilmore has no qualms about proposing a solution that he sees as beneficial to an entire nation, without even consulting the nation itself. This demonstrates yet another example of a member of the dominant group in society infantilizing an oppressed group.

Gilmore’s suggestion does stipulate that Aboriginal’s can freely choose whether they want to move to cities. However, I would agree with Karen Stote (an Assistant Professor at Wilfred Laurier University) that:

“Until conditions of colonialism are ended and the longstanding policies and practices imposed on Aboriginal peoples by a foreign government are brought to a halt, and until Aboriginal peoples are returned lands, resources, and the freedom to provide for their own subsistence in ways they so choose, without stipulations, one cannot speak of freedom of choice”

Stote effectively points out that in the case of Aboriginals in Canada, the disfavourable living conditions that many of them face are the result of a colonial legacy that has systematically oppressed and marginalized First Nations since they first came into contact with each other.Β  So sure, perhaps more and more Aboriginals are moving to the city because that is their preference. But perhaps more and more Aboriginals are moving to the city not because they want to, but because they feel it is their only option to raising their standard of living. If the latter is closer to reality, then spending those federal funds on empowering Aboriginal rural communities to be economically sustainable should be a possible option, rather than suggesting a program that supports relocation.

Whatever the case maybe, the fundamental issue at hand is that prescribing a solution to a problem faced by an oppressed group, when one is in fact part of the dominant group, is essentialist, infantalizing, strips the oppressed group of dignity and self-determination, and reinforces the dangerous imperialist ideology of the “white man’s burden”*.




* To clarify: the supposed or presumed responsibility of white people to govern and impart their culture to nonwhite people, often advanced as a justification for European colonialism.