Fresh thinking on native policy

NationalPost.com – Opinion/Editorial
Thursday, Jul. 22, 2010.

Shawn Atleo says most of the right things, but does he really mean them?

For instance, the charismatic young entrepreneur, who is National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations (AFN), told his organization’s annual meeting in Winnipeg this week that it was time for Canada’s aboriginals to agree to a dismantling of the Indian Act and the federal Indian bureaucracy created in the Act’s image. It was time for greater independence. But then in the next breath, he called for new federal agencies that would ensure the provision of land, health care, education and other items promised in treaties.

Is this really some new relationship between Ottawa and aboriginals, or merely a repackaging of the same old entitlements that have made many of our one million native citizens hopeless dependents of government handouts?

A lack of funding is not the biggest problem facing natives. For instance, would Mr. Atleo’s demand for 60 new reserve schools across the country solve the aboriginal drop-out problem? No, not without a major change of cultural attitudes within aboriginal communities. The biggest impediment to native school completion is a lack of family and community support for the importance of a high school diploma or university degree. If a student’s family and peers are indifferent to the need to stay in school–if it is simply assumed that one’s future is on the dole or in a gang, or employment in some band-paid sinecure– why study?

Still, Mr. Atleo seems to understand that the lack of aboriginal education attainment is more than a bricks-and-mortar issue. He has several times called on natives to stop making excuses, and look for ways within their communities to bolster school attendance and scholastic achievement.

Since he became National Chief, Mr. Atleo has said many times that aboriginals must look for partnerships with non-aboriginal businesses so that they might lift themselves up economically, not by lobbying for bigger government subsidies (Ottawa alone already spends nearly $9-billion a year on aboriginal social services).

In his Winnipeg speech this week, he even suggested the AFN would be among the first native groups to wean itself from federal cash by replacing some or all of its annual budget (which now comes almost wholly from Ottawa) with corporate sponsorships. More importantly, he supports land reform on native reserves, which would permit residents to gain the same sort of individual property-ownership rights that the rest of Canadians take for granted.

Will all of this come about in the five-year timeline Mr. Atleo laid out this week? That’s doubtful. But change has to start

somewhere. And the ideas that Mr. Atleo is articulating would go a long way to correcting the many ills that plague Canadian aboriginals.

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