Stronger First Nations make for a stronger Canada – opinion – Stronger First Nations make for a stronger Canada
Oct 01, 2008. Phil Fontaine

What does it say about a country where one in three students will not graduate from high school, where more than 20 per cent of their former classmates are in jail, and where the schools are falling apart at the seams?

If 88 per cent of all children do not have access to early childhood programs, no money for language education, no funding for libraries, and no money for computers, what does this say about how our country cares about our children’s future?

In Ontario, from North Spirit Lake to Attawapiskat, thousands of First Nations students attend school in overcrowded, portable units that circulate stale, mouldy air and freeze in the winter. These “temporary” units have become the only “school” these children have.

For example, Pikangikum First Nation, north of Dryden, has a population of 2,500. One-third are under the age of 9. More than 800 children are crammed into portable classrooms, and more students are on a waiting list.

This morning, I will speak at the Ontario Economic Summit at Niagara-on-the-Lake about the urgent need to ensure First Nations children receive the education and job skills training they require to fully participate in the labour force.

At the Council of the Federation meeting in Quebec City last July, the premiers called on the federal government to convene an immediate First Ministers Meeting to address children, education, skills training and lifelong learning. They also called for action to close the growing socio-economic gap between aboriginal people and Canadians. They agree that stronger First Nations make for a stronger Canada.

At the Assembly of First Nations, we have highlighted the urgent need for new investments in education and job skills in our last three pre-budget submissions to the House of Commons Finance Committee. Our 2009 submission calls for an immediate investment of $2 billion to address the current shortfalls in education, schools, languages and job skills development.

You might wonder why this investment is needed. First Nations are the fastest growing segment of Canada’s population. More than half of our population of 800,000 is under the age of 24 and growing rapidly. This is important to Ontario because, like the rest of the country, Ontario has an aging labour force. Ontario needs new skilled workers.

A choice must be made now. If immediate investments are made in First Nations, we can turn the poverty gap into prosperity for Ontario and Canada. On the other hand, if no new investments are made, the poverty gap between First Nations and the rest of the country will continue to grow and condemn another generation of our youth to poverty and despair.

More poverty means more First Nations young people will be homeless in the streets of Toronto and Thunder Bay. More of our young people will be in jail – at an annual cost of $96,000 per person. That money should instead be used to pay for one year of school for 30 students. Those resources should provide support to First Nations students attending post-secondary schools.

First Nations potential share of the Canadian labour force is expected to triple over the next 20 years. By the year 2028, more than 500,000 First Nations youth will enter the labour market. They will make a tremendous contribution to the economy.

In addition, First Nations governments are growing players in the economy. As more land claims are settled in Ontario, First Nations will contribute tens of billions of dollars more into the economy through control of natural and renewable resources, and spinoff industries that range from manufacturing to tourism.

For example, Pikangikum is about to take control of a section of boreal forest the size of Prince Edward Island. An estimated 350 community jobs will be created to manage the forest. Pikangikum and two other local First Nations are on the verge of opening a plant that will produce wooden beams for the Asian market.

In another case, as part of a land claim settlement, various Algonquin First Nations, the province of Ontario, and Canada are scheduled to sign a tripartite agreement by 2010 to transfer to the Algonquins approximately 35 million hectares of Crown land.

We know that the future is far from certain. We are concerned about our children’s future, just like you are. We, too, are concerned about the global financial crisis.

Even in today’s economic times, there can be opportunity. First Nations are ready and willing to play a major role in the renewal and revitalization of the economy.

However, to achieve that we require the support of all Canadians.

By working in partnership with private industry and other levels of government, First Nations have the potential to become a major economic force in this province, in Canada and in the world. When First Nations prosper, Canada prospers. Our future is a shared future. Let’s work together to make it a healthy and prosperous one.

Phil Fontaine is National Chief, Assembly of First Nations.

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