Sermon Notes: June 23 2019, Aboriginal Sunday
Remote First Nations communities face conditions that we would not tolerate in southern Canada. That prompts the question, ‘What does it mean to love your neighbour as Jesus commands?’
Maybe you wish you didn’t have to pay income tax. But second thoughts might make you change your mind. In countries like Canada, you don’t pay income tax if you are very poor. In so-called third world countries, you don’t pay taxes because there are no government services. Or perhaps you are rich, so you cheat your way out of taxes by holding your assets offshore.
The connection with Aboriginal Sunday is that many Indigenous Canadians live in remote communities where people don’t pay taxes because they are very poor. They also lack essential services that those of us in southern Ontario take for granted. They do not live in “First World” conditions.
First, Grassy Narrows. I spoke about the problem of mercury contamination of the English-Wabigoon River system on Earth Day two years ago. In 1979, the Ontario Government offered protection from future environmental liability to the owners of the pulp and paper mill in the community of Dryden. This was done to save jobs at the mill. Implicitly, that meant that the Ontario Government (us) took over the liability for cleaning up the site. They (we) have done nothing about this problem even though people in the community suffer clinical symptoms of mercury poisoning. Later in 2017, the Ontario Government agreed to begin clean up, but nothing tangible has yet been done.
Meanwhile the federal government agreed to build a facility in the community to treat people suffering from the effects of decades of exposure to mercury. In April of this year, Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett said that Ottawa “remains steadfast” in that commitment. But nothing has actually been done. The people remain untreated and the river remains polluted. Its fish are an important protein source for the community. Do you think that a clear health hazard in Milton or Burlington would get shoved under the rug for fifty years?
North Caribou Lake
Second, the sewage lagoon at the North Caribou Lake First Nation was constructed in 1997. It has leaked every year since then. This spring, the dam burst, flooding the area with raw sewage. That state of affairs continues. The federal Indigenous Services Minister promised to fix the problem but nothing has yet been done. Again, I think we would get pretty prompt action if that happened in Milton or Guelph.
Third, residents of the Kasechewan First Nation had to be evacuated because of spring flooding this past May. That also happened last year. At the time, the City of Ottawa was also facing spring floods. The difference – Ottawa called in the army to help with sand-bagging.
Besides these issues, people in remote communities have much worse access to health care and education than what we take for granted. Some of this could be addressed by improved use of technology – more and better video links to hospitals and doctors; linking remote schools to schools in larger communities where a fuller range of high school courses is available.
Action in southern Ontario; inaction in remote communities
The news media are presently full of commentary about whether the Canadian government committed genocide against Indigenous peoples. There is also ongoing debate about reconciliation between Indigenous and what we now call ‘Settler’ Canadians. I have no expertise on these matters. But I do see that people in the remote communities have to put up with poor living conditions that we in southern Ontario would address promptly. People in remote communities have televisions. They see the difference between what happens in their communities and ours. How would you feel if you lived in Kasechewan — your TV showed the army filling sandbags to protect homes in Ottawa, while you had to hang out in a motel far from home in Kapuskasing? You’d surely feel very resentful.
I sometimes hear people say that the First Nations people take an ‘us against them’ attitude towards the Canada that we love. Perhaps we need to turn that telescope around. We – that means our governments – do not treat the First Nations Canadians in remote communities the same way that we treat Canadians in ‘Settler’ communities like Milton, Burlington and Guelph. Milton, remember, got the ‘Big Pipe’ to bring drinking water from Lake Ontario at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars. Remote First Nations get boil-water advisories that sometimes last for years.
New programs, magical thinking
I began by asking whether one would like not to have to pay income taxes. We are beginning to hear the campaign promises of the political parties in the run-up to October’s federal election. Magical thinking suggests that we can have new programs like national pharmacare without raising taxes (except on people earning $20 million!). The truth is that people coming after us would have to pay the debts that such policies would incur. We can indeed have whatever new programs we want. But we have to be honest, and recognize that we have to pay for them.
Paying taxes; Christian values
Taxes allow us to provide services for everyone. We share our money so that everyone can take advantage of services like health care, policing, education, parks etc. It is the difference between seeing oneself as a citizen rather than a mere taxpayer. I remember Bonnie and Bev talking about a cruise they went on some years ago. Some American fellow-travellers said that their objection to universal health care was, ‘Why should I have to pay for other peoples’ health care?’
Loving your neighbour
The Bible says a lot on this issue. The prophets and the psalmists repeatedly told the people of Israel to take care of people they called the poor, the widows, and the orphans. Jesus was asked about the greatest commandments. He famously replied that we should love God and love our neighbours. Paying taxes for the common good is an outward sign of a society with Christian values.
As Christians, do we love our Indigenous neighbours who live in remote parts of Canada? If so, our society must provide them with the benefits that we enjoy. These include good schooling, good health care, housing, clean and safe drinking water. They are not the issues that so consume the “chattering classes” – reconciliation and real or perceived genocide. In the words of a hymn, “When I needed a neighbour, were you there?” So are we there when our far-away neighbours need us? To me (and this may not be a popular position), to pay our taxes without griping is to remember that Jesus told us. We must love all our neighbours as ourselves.