First Nations: Forge hope from the pain

TheStar.com – opinion/editorials
Published On Sat Jul 16 2011

The death of a small boy who liked video games haunted Canada’s native leaders as they gathered in Moncton this past week for their annual meeting. Ethan Yellowbird, a “playful, fun” 5-year-old, was shot in his sleep when a gunman targeted his father’s house on the gang-ridden Samson Cree reserve in Alberta. He was a chief’s grandson, one of the hopes of his people.

As Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn Atleo told the gathering, Ethan’s death underscored the urgent need to “build healthier, stronger and safer communities” for the 1.3 million aboriginal people in this country. But that will remain more wishful thinking than reality until someone hits the reset button on the federal government’s lopsided relationship with First Nations. A sense of powerlessness afflicts many native communities, along with the poverty, substance abuse and violence that cut short lives.

Far too many “still lack what most other Canadians take for granted,” former auditor-general Sheila Fraser noted in a scathing report in May. “In a wealthy country like Canada, this gap is simply unacceptable.”

In theory at least, Prime Minister Stephen Harper is open to a fresh start. He’s committed to holding a “Canada-First Nation Crown Gathering” to discuss a wide variety of issues: governance reforms, accountability, economic development and schooling, among others. That’s something native leaders have been urging. Indeed, 15 years ago the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples saw a need to “pass the levers of control to aboriginal people.”

There’s a lot to be said for a Canada-First Nation process. It would be based on a healthy mutual recognition by the federal Crown and native communities. Aboriginal leaders want respect from Ottawa; they are tired of being treated as dependants. It would also help concentrate minds. Native leaders talk of negotiating a wide-ranging deal with the Canadian government that would affirm treaties, aboriginal title and rights, and chart a path forward.

Ultimately, Atleo envisages breaking up the federal Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development department and giving First Nations the option at least of managing their affairs outside the restrictive 1876 Indian Act. Much of the department’s $7 billion budget could go directly to First Nations under such arrangements, instead of being filtered through the bureaucracy.

Pinning all this down won’t be easy, if for no other reason than the native leadership itself is divided on the best way forward. Moreover, Harper’s good intentions have yet to be fully tested. After coming to power he killed the $5 billion Kelowna Accord that was specifically designed to create aboriginal jobs, raise living standards to the level of other Canadians by 2016, and improve housing, water and schooling. Years have been squandered that could have improved lives on the Samson Cree reserve and others. And of course, administrative reforms alone won’t settle costly land claims.

Still, a Conservative government should be open to enabling people to help themselves and to reducing bureaucracy. The process Atleo envisages could usher in a healthier, more cooperative chapter in Crown/First Nation relations. That’s the hope, at least. It’s worth a try.

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