From the Native point of view, this blockade was anything but counter-productive

There’s an old saying, often repeated by my wife in dealing with children—or sometimes with me—that goes: “Successful behaviour will be repeated.”

Most people eventually come to understand it, but apparently our federal government is not among them.

The saying means, of course, that if a certain behaviour gets people what they want, they naturally will tend to use it again. The kid may yell and go into a tantrum to get something. Admonish him as you will for this conduct, what will determine whether he does it again is whether it works.

Did he get what he was after? If, despite your disapproval, you gave it to him, you can expect further such performances. Successful behaviour will repeat itself.

Now in the light of this old dictum, examine carefully how the government has so far handled the Mohawk Indians’ blockade of the Canadian National mainline between Toronto and Montreal. That’s the old Grand Trunk Railway. In the days before the West became Canadian, when Canada consisted of Ontario and Quebec, it was built from Windsor on the west to Quebec City on the east and, like the trunk of a tree, all branch lines were attached to it. Hence the name.

Today it still remains, I would think, the busiest railway line in the country. Hundreds of thousands of tons of freight pass over it daily, with four or five freight trains of 100 cars or more roaring past every hour. It is, in short, a central artery of the Canadian economy. The Mohawks stopped 50 trains last month, stalling the movement of about $100 million worth of goods, and diverting about 3,000 passengers.

Meanwhile we get the usual ambiguity from National Chief Phil Fontaine. Of course he is officially against such illegal activity, but as he told the posh Canadian Club in Ottawa, “many of our communities have reached the breaking point … The anger and frustration are palpable. People are so tired and so fed up with this type of existence—especially when all around them is a better life and hope.”

Meanwhile, on the Internet, instructions appeared on YouTube—until it was taken down—that explained how to paralyze railway lines by fooling the sensors so the whole system has to stop.

Very unfortunate, says Fontaine, but his people want their land claims issues settled, to produce more money for them and thereby alleviate their poverty. The federal government stalled for years under the Liberals, and the Harper administration is still stalling. The blockades are necessary to force action.

Now note the response of Indian Affairs Minister Jim Prentice. First he condemns the blocking of railway lines as “irresponsible” and “counter-productive,” protesting that “someone may be hurt” and promising “a hard line” on any further blockades.

But a day later word is leaked from his office that Ottawa is “putting the finishing touches” on a new plan to resolve the land claims issues. An announcement will be made “within the next few weeks.”

What are the Natives to conclude from this? Their land claims have indeed gone unresolved for years, but blockage of CN’s Toronto-Montreal line suddenly produces a decisive step within a few weeks. So what will be the likely consequence? More blocked railway lines, of course. From the Native point of view, this blockade was anything but counter-productive.

What land claims settlements will definitely not solve, however, is the problem of Native poverty. The more money that pours into the reserves, it seems, the worse grows their endemic social distress. Stories persist that these funds enrich band council members while benefiting most residents not at all, but the government is not allowed to audit band accounts. New housing is provided, not maintained, and abandoned. Job-training programs make no dint in chronic unemployment. Drugs, crime, child abuse and suicide remain epidemic.

Prentice knows this, Fontaine knows it, Stephen Harper knows it and so did the prime ministers preceding him. “All around them, the people see life and hope,” says Fontaine. Right. So why don’t they move off the reserve and share in it? It seems they can’t; we have killed genuine initiative with “kindness.” That is the ugly reality.