Protest message should be heard – comment/editorial – Protest message should be heard
May 20, 2008

On May 29, First Nations people across Canada will stage a “day of action” to draw attention to the poverty, appalling living conditions and despair that plague many of their communities.

Their message will be an uncomfortable one for a country that prides itself on being one of the most forward-thinking in the world. But there are reasons for all Canadians to listen closely.

Many First Nations communities are in crisis. Dozens of reserves have dilapidated schools or no schools at all. Children on reserves are far more likely to be in the care of child welfare authorities than children in the rest of the country, as federal Auditor General Sheila Fraser recently reported. Rundown and overcrowded housing, dirty drinking water and unemployment dog many remote reserves.

It is a recipe for desperation. Little wonder that gangs and suicide are rampant, both on reserves and in cities where many First Nations people now live.

Yet except when protests (Caledonia and Deseronto, as well as mining disputes in northern and eastern Ontario) or crises (the mass evacuations of Kashechewan and other nearby communities after recent flooding) force us to confront these awkward truths, it is a problem most Canadians are content to ignore. We do so at our peril.

Canada’s native population is growing far faster than the rest of the country. It is also disproportionately young.

Some of these young people are beating odds that are heavily stacked against them by attending college and university, entering professions like law, nursing and medicine, and starting businesses. But they are still a small minority. In the meantime, widespread hopelessness and alienation are sowing the seeds of radicalism. As Phil Fontaine, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, recently told the Star’s editorial board, “There are a lot of very angry young people out there.”

Canadians can ill-afford to stand by as this generation of youth languishes for want of opportunities and resources most of us take for granted. Glimmers of hope, including a proposed new specific land claims process, don’t even begin to make up for years of indifference.

With the death of the 2005 Kelowna Accord at the hands of the Harper Conservatives and no credible strategy on the horizon to replace it, natives understandably feel they have no choice but to call national attention once again to the issues they face.

Native leaders are urging peaceful demonstrations on May 29, although even Fontaine admits he cannot guarantee frustrations will not boil over in some areas. The temptation will be to react with anger and force. But if we don’t make good faith efforts to solve these problems now, we may soon face a new generation of native leaders who will be far less inclined to find the middle ground.

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