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A Bleak Future for Northern Reserves

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By: Graham Lane

Published: Winnipeg Sun, December 2, 2016

Recently we have had worrisome news from Northern Manitoba. From the troubles of the Port
of Churchill and its rail line, a scare from the Pas’ major employer and thoughts of moving the
aboriginal-run casino, to continued plans to shut down parts of the Vale and HudBay’s
operations in Thompson and Flin Flon. All affect the employment of aboriginals.

In the heady 1960s, Churchill reached a population of nearly 6,000 people. After the US
Airforce moved out and the rocket range closed down, Churchill’s population steadily declined
to about 700 people. Tolko’s forestry operations in the Pas tried to make a go of it after crown
corporation Manfor couldn’t – trees are too small, markets too far away.

Many other communities in the north, such as Lynn Lake, Bisset, Pine Falls, and Flin Flon,
have had operations closed down or reduced, and have seen their working populations decline
substantially. Gone are the days of never-ending price increases for all raw commodities –
welcome to the days of cutthroat competition, flattening demand and low economic growth –
spelling disaster for many northern resource-based communities.

People naturally migrate out of declining communities to areas of economic opportunity,
better health care, and greater educational opportunities. Until we see an explosion in the
demand for our natural resources, the Manitoba North will produce less economic output and
continue to lose population.

So, where does this leave our First Nations people living on northern reserves? The hope was
economic opportunities would spill over into their communities. But with mine closures,
forestry at risk, hunting and fishing offering limited opportunities and local industries
relocating, what is the long-term economic outlook for our northern citizens?

This situation is important for all Manitobans. The Aboriginal communities are part of
Manitoba and Canada and we are all responsible for our aboriginal citizens.
Aboriginals living in the north, and especially those on reserves, face a bleak future,
economic and social. Frankly, there is little possibility for the majority to become
economically self-sufficient. Right now, 90% of the people on northern reserves are
unemployed, with no hope of ever finding meaningful and longterm work outside of internal
band administration.

For families wherever located and whether or not aboriginal, to have a purpose to their lives
and believe their children will be better off than they have been, they need economic
empowerment. The brutal truth is that no one can turn history back and support their
families by hunting and fishing. And, it is increasingly unlikely mining and forestry will rescue
them. While there will always be some traditional trapping and small-scale commercial
fishing, it will never be enough to support our northern aboriginal population.

These people are trapped, dependent on a welfare state controlled by Chiefs, band councils,
and the federal government. To some degree, we can blame corruption and a lack of skills,
but there are fewer employment opportunities in the North. There is no hope of these
Manitobans becoming economically well off – PERIOD.

It is time that we looked for real alternatives to help our Northern aboriginal people find
meaningful and productive lives, rather than hiding them away on crime-infested reserves and
other withering northern communities.

Next week, what we can do.

Graham Lane leads Manitoba Forward (

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