It is a cold winter’s day in rural Nova Scotia. The temperature is well below freezing, the wind is blowing hard and the weather alerts warn of an impending blizzard. However, even the dire weather does not deter over 50 people from coming to meet Chief Betty Ann Lavallée from the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples (CAP) on her 2015 Grassroots Tour.
Sandra Lee Paul from Sipekne’katik Indian Brook First Nation is one of the first people to arrive. She is a slight woman with a wide smile and a contagious laugh. Paul, 54, is upbeat despite the fact that she has come to the event as a last resort to get help.
“I have been without power all by myself for three months, from November until now. I have one kidney, two hip replacements and I am lugging water. I am at the end of my rope buying wood, paying my electricity bill and my rent on $750 a month. I just can’t do it anymore,” says Paul. “I have cried for three months, I cannot cry any more - that is why I am here.”
Sandra Lee Paul
Paul speaks openly to the Chief and to Grace Conrad, chief and president of the Native Council of Nova Scotia (NCNS). Paul’s story is personal and it drives home the need for services to be available for all Aboriginal peoples living off-reserve.
Before Paul moved off-reserve she lived on a nearby reservation in a newly built house given to her by her band. Although she had housing and financial support, her life was marked by tragedy.
“I got a new house but I also lost my first husband on the reserve, he was shot five times on my doorstep. I was five months pregnant with a 15 month old daughter.”
Paul eventually remarried and had two children with her second husband. But, when his alcoholism became too much to handle, Paul moved off the reserve and into a small rural community.
Although she found refuge from domestic problems, moving off-reserve added a new layer of difficulties to Paul’s life she did not anticipate.
“I am here to find out what rights I have as a native living off the reserve. I have been going through a hard time because I went to my band to get help, but I can’t get help because they helped me before. I went to the non-native - the welfare system – and they can’t help me because they helped me once before.”
Paul’s case illustrates the challenges off-reserve aboriginal people face navigating the complex web of administrative barriers between themselves and resources they are entitled to. Although not always the case, often these hurdles disproportionately affect women and children as they try to improve their own lives or those of their children.
Paul’s story may be unique but the issues faced by off-reserve status and non-status Aboriginal people are not. This is why CAP advocates for the rights of all Aboriginal peoples.
CAP continues to work towards building a future where all Indigenous people have equal access to programs and services across Canada. But, until the federal government guarantees equal protection for all Aboriginal peoples regardless of their residence or status, there will always be people living on the edge without any support.
Until the federal government recognises the rights and needs of all its citizens, people like Paul will have to rely on help from the people around her.
“It has been so cold and snowy, but I got a wood stove and what little wood the community helps me with is comforting,” says Paul. “My community, where I live, have helped me more than my family and everybody.”