Reviewed by John Richards
On the cover of Dances with Dependency, Calvin Helin is described as a “determined lawyer, karate instructor, and businessman.” But … he is also son of a family of Tsimshian chiefs in northwestern British Columbia. And he has illustrated the book with his cousin’s paintings. Some of these are realistic, if romantic, representations of the Pacific northwest. Others are in the abstract tradition of northwest native art. Throughout this book, Helin is juggling a double identity: that of his ancestors and that of a professional lawyer, successfully integrated into the Canadian economy. The juggling act is impressive, even if he falters in the end and a few balls fall to the ground – more on that later.
University library stacks across Canada are groaning under the weight of books, reports and academic articles written over the last quarter century on the Aboriginal plight. This writing uniformly blames the white “settler population” for the malaise of contemporary Aboriginals and uniformly looks to expansive treaty rights and larger Indian Affairs budgets for a solution. Helin is as unsparing as anyone writing within this orthodoxy in his critique of past and present government policy. What makes this an “astonishing book” (to use the wording of the cover) is his insistence that Aboriginal leadership is complicit in perpetuating the Aboriginals’ malaise, and that solutions must be based on Aboriginal entrepreneurship and employment.
In the interest of full disclosure, I mention that Helin quotes from my writing. As do I, he concludes that a core aspect of Aboriginal distress is to be found in Ottawa’s funding of passive social assistance. Only Ontario and Quebec finance larger welfare caseloads than does the federal Department of Indian Affairs. With approximately 40 per cent of the on-reserve population in receipt of welfare, Ottawa has created a massive “welfare trap” (Helin’s term) that serves “to reinforce dependency and [has] directly resulted in a complex web of social and political pathologies.” He goes on to describe a “culture of expectancy”:
An expectation that all means for ordinary existence (social assistance, housing, education, medical and dental care, community infrastructure finance, and finance for operation of community governments, etc.) will be provided externally, with no expectation that effort must be expended or such items earned. Our Aboriginal ancestors of antiquity would find such an expectation utterly astonishing … As a youth, if I were to suggest to my father, a hardworking commercial fisherman, that I deserved a fishing trip crew share when I had not done any of the work to earn it, I would quickly have been introduced to the business end of his gumboot.
This “culture of expectancy” is not some anomaly unique to Aboriginals. Helin’s thesis, with which I fully agree, is that any community, Aboriginal or non-Aboriginal, with 40 per cent reliance on social assistance will, with the passage of time, develop such a culture.
What’s to be done about this?
The first answer Helin offers can be summarized as a combination of education reform and respect for entrepreneurship.
The encouragement of reserve-based business entrepreneurship is at the heart of his message. He points with legitimate pride to several success stories across Canada, such as that of the Osoyoos band in the Okanagan. Good band leadership plus business acumen has spawned a number of successful business ventures.