A winter of aboriginal agony must lead to action

TheStar.com – news/canada/politics
Published On Thu Nov 24 2011.   By Tim Harper, National Affairs Columnist – Ottawa

By any measure, there’s a lot on the plate of Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan.

He is being accused of indifference by MPs while residents of the remote northern Ontario community of Attawapiskat live in a state of emergency, huddled against the cold in uninsulated tents.

After weeks of scolding by NDP MP Charlie Angus, Duncan appeared to ante up $2.5 million for the community Thursday, at least according to Chief Theresa Spence, before it was denied by the minister’s department.

“Canadians get it,” said Angus, who has received offers of help from around the world. “But what we see is an immense ability of the federal and provincial governments to ignore this misery and say ‘what’s the problem?’”

Duncan had to quickly funnel $5.5 million to northern Manitoba, after prodding from Liberals, to provide running water to communities on the Ontario border.

But close to 2,000 First Nations homes in this country remain without water service.

Former Prime Minister Paul Martin this week called the underfunding of aboriginal education in this country “absolute discrimination . . . the moral issue of our time.”

Wednesday, more than two dozen aboriginal communities in Manitoba and Northern Ontario filed a multimillion dollar lawsuit accusing the federal government of underfunding aboriginal education.

“At some point you have to say enough is enough, too many of our children are not reaching their potential,” said Grand Chief Diane Kelly, who represents the 28 Anishinaabe bands that filed the suit.

The same day, the Senate human rights committee tabled a report calling on Duncan’s government to do more to help aboriginal communities deal with the sexual exploitation of children.

Statistics Canada reported this week that aboriginal unemployment is almost double that of non-aboriginals.

That would appear to be more than enough to keep the minister busy.

So Duncan sprung into action Wednesday.

He headed out to the Whitecap Dakota First Nation in Saskatchewan to reintroduce legislation that would force First Nations to prepare audited financial statements and publicly disclose the salaries and expenses of their chiefs.

The quarrel here is not with the substance of the legislation.

Transparency is vital and some of the salaries and per diems revealed last autumn by the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, showing chiefs with take home pay outstripping provincial premiers, are impossible to justify.

Saskatchewan MP Kelly Block, who introduced a similar private member’s bill in the last Parliament, says the legislation will “pave the way for economic prosperity for First Nations.”

But with a number of files ablaze all about him, Duncan’s priorities seem askew, if not downright misplaced.

“Paving the way,” is something you do when everything in fine and you are looking to the future.

Duncan and Prime Minister Stephen Harper have to look at the present on the aboriginal file and deal with it with some urgency.

The enormity of the problems with First Nations across this country is gaining widespread national attention.

It’s time, says Shawn Atleo, the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, to stop lurching from crisis to crisis.

He said he had no problem with the thrust of the Duncan transparency bill, but said it was time to address the substance of First Nations challenges.

“Our future and our country’s future depends on the unleashing of the potential of our young people,” he told me Thursday.

Atleo said the era of unilateral decisions made by governments for First Nations — the historic pattern of paternalism — must be ended and the government and aboriginal leaders must go forward jointly.

“We need to hit the reset button on the relationship,” he said.

He believes we are at a tipping point, and he may be right.

The misery of Attawapiskat, the medieval living conditions in northern Manitoba and the tragedy of the underfunded education of aboriginal youth are all symptoms of a larger problem that must be faced.

Atleo is hopeful of a winter summit with First Nations leaders and the Prime Minister.

There are signals from Ottawa that it will happen.

It is long overdue.

< http://www.thestar.com/news/canada/politics/article/1092240–tim-harper-a-winter-of-aboriginal-agony-must-lead-to-action >

5 Comments

  1. Kimberley Cloughley

    The statement “A meeting with First Nations leaders and the Prime Minister is long overdue” is a huge understatement. I cannot express the anger and horror I feel after reading this article, as well as reading supportive articles in reference to the situation in Attawapiskat. The headline of this article leads one to believe it will be about the horrible conditions First Nations peoples are facing in Attawapiskat, I find this a bit misleading for what we are truly talking about which is decades of oppression and government mismanagement of First Nations issues. It seems to me that Attawapiskat is the tip of the iceberg, the very tip of a massive iceberg! As a proud Canadian I am torn to my very soul to read of the despair faced by many First Nations communities in this country. It appears that our present federal conservative government with its historic “neoliberal” ideologies of no handouts and cutbacks to funding have little to no regard to the plight of this demographic. What this federal government refuses (as so many in the past)to see the contribution it is making to the problem by just handing out money and hoping the problem will just go away, then blaming for mismanaging funds. Mr. Duncan accuses the people of Attawapiskat for mismanaging funds given to them from 2004-2008. There are major systemic problems at play here such as renovation funds for houses that are in such ill repair they should be levelled not fixed. There is major underfunding to all areas of First Nations peoples with this article touches on two, education and infrastructure both of these areas have lead to disaster for Attawapiskat as some of the “relief” money allocated had to be spent in education and not on the much needed housing. Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan should be ashamed of himself for the total lack of concern he has shown to the situation of First Nations peoples especially those in Attawapiskat. With regard to this summer’s flooding in Manitoba he was quoted as saying “This year’s flood has had a significant impact on First Nations communities in Manitoba. Ensuring the safety of First Nations residents has been our highest priority,” (taken from Public Safety of Canada’s website Nov 21, 2011). This is laughable considering that he has done nothing for First Nations in Manitoba as well as the recent situation in Attawapiskat, high priority…really? After some pressure from MP Charlie Angus the minister finally moved to do something, his first agenda item to fix the situation was to reintroduce transparency legislation for First Nations chiefs. What??? Yes, Mr. Duncan, this will help the people of Attawapiskat stay warm and safe oh yes and ALIVE this coming winter. It is amazing to me that Canada can “jump” to the call of the U.S.A and travel with its supplies and ships when hurricane Katrina hits but cannot travel a few hours to northern Ontario to help its own. The band aid is the cost of 268 houses in Attawapiskat, however major surgery is needed to repair the decades of underfunded programs and services provided to all First Nations peoples of this country. I hope the suffering these people are feeling right now will be the “straw that breaks the camel’s back” as we need appropriate action now! We need a new minister of Aboriginal Affairs, one that understands and is willing to make changes. My first order of business if I were Prime Minister..fire Mr. Duncan and hire a person of First Nations Aboriginal decent to take on the portfolio of Aboriginal Affairs.

  2. An unrealistic thought in the eyes of the government but a soothing thought in many eyes.

    To see government officials live on Aboriginal reserves with their families for one full year with Aboriginal salaries. How long would they would last without running water, low income, poor living conditions, poor education for their children, no vehicle, and smoke signals to name a few.

    It is doubtful that these kinds of living conditions would be adequate for them and their families, so why do they feel that it is adequate for Aboriginals/First Nation/Métis/Inuit people to live in these conditions?

    Could it be that history has continued to repeat its self only with a softer tone of voice?

    Let’s take a deep breath, and close our eyes, recall the inhumane history the Aboriginal peoples were made to endure with the help of our government. Let’s walk years worth of miles in a pair of moccasins. Now imagine living on a reserve (in this day and age) where living conditions are equivalent to a third world country.

    Now open our eyes, look around our house, sit in our car(s), wash our hands in the sink, do a load of laundry in our laundry room, make a phone call on our phone(s),and sit in our warm heated house…

    The question is, would we want to live or trade all these things in, to live like a third world country, or do WE think it is better to HELP ones without, so they too can enjoy living in “equality” and not in poverty…… Just a thought.

  3. Why is it that people can have so much empathy for Third World Countries and the living condition in which they live in and at the same time show so much anger toward us First Nation people who live in the same condition. When the Government of our country lets the people know how much money has been given to the First Nation people there is only one reason behind a statement like that, SUPPORT for the Governement. When a Government has to be shamed into helping than they are not the people they believe they are. For many money is what matters not the people, and Government for the people is a myth.

  4. Roland I would like to correct you on one point if I may, Government for the people is not a myth, it does exist in this country, however it should be Government for SOME people, those who are already wealthy, those who are white, those who are affluent! This government has never been about ALL the people of this country, least of all the aboriginal populations. They continue their pattern of giving to the rich and forcing the poor and marginalized to live in situations that they would find unacceptable for their own families.
    It is sickening how the government thinks they can throw tiny bandages on gaping holes and expect them to heal! Over the past few years I have read many articles, researched a ton of different ideological perspectives, and tried to step into the shoes of the aboriginal population. I have to say I have learned a lot, but I know nothing! How they can withstand the situations in which they are thrust amazes me and my only explanation for their survival is that they are the most spiritually focused, and strongest people, that they can live through it. I think it’s about time others who are also white like I am, stand up to the government and insist that they treat reserves like all other communities in this country, with clean water, solid homes, heat, education and their own government. Lets remove the word reserve from the dictionary as it pertains to living arrangements, as they are no different than any other community and deserve to be treated in the same manner.

  5. Thanks for finally talking about >A winter of aboriginal agony must lead to action

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