Time to engage our First Nations

TheStar.com – Opinion/Editorial – Time to engage our First Nations
July 20, 2009

Ask Canadians what most embarrasses them and many would likely say the condition of our First Nations communities.

Yet the subject rarely gets national attention until there’s a crisis, such as the unsafe drinking water that forced the evacuation of Kashechewan in 2005 or the more recent epidemic of H1N1 flu that swept across reserves in Manitoba.

Our short attention span underscores the challenge facing the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) as it meets in Calgary this week to choose a new national chief. For if the AFN’s new leadership is to help Canada’s native people out of the morass, it needs a willing partner in Ottawa and the provinces.

Earlier this decade, there were efforts to move in that direction, culminating in the 2005 Kelowna Accord – a $5 billion agreement among Ottawa, the provinces and native groups to raise aboriginals’ standard of living to the level of other Canadians by 2016. But Prime Minister Stephen Harper killed the deal when he took office in 2006.

Three years later, the story is depressingly familiar: There are still 42 First Nations without schools and 100 communities that must boil their drinking water.

For the past 12 years, the public face of the AFN has been Phil Fontaine, who negotiated the ill-fated Kelowna Accord with the former Liberal government and led the campaign for a full public apology for mistreatment of students in residential schools. Now, as the AFN prepares for the post-Fontaine era, it needs to build on his efforts to deliver improved education, decent housing and a fair share of resource revenues to First Nations communities.

Without such a foundation, economic development will remain out of reach, and First Nations people will be condemned to continued poverty and alienation.

The two leading candidates to replace Fontaine – Shawn Atleo and John Beaucage – are experienced regional figures. Atleo, the AFN’s B.C. regional chief, is stressing economic development and skills training as a way up for communities that have been down for too long. Beaucage, grand council chief of the Anishinabek Nation in Ontario, seeks to streamline the AFN’s unwieldy structure by reducing its more than 600 bands to a more manageable grouping of 60 traditional nations. And he wants all status Indians to have a vote for the national chief, rather than restricting the ballot to band chiefs.

Both candidates are focusing on native youth, and with good reason: Young people now make up 50 per cent of the native population and are the fastest growing segment of the Canadian population.

The AFN estimates Canada loses $12 billion in productivity annually because of native joblessness. Yet there are also success stories, like the 30,000 aboriginal students in university and the 20,000 businesses owned and managed by aboriginals.

Whoever emerges this week as the new national chief, the federal and provincial governments must engage with him and join together in a drive to improve the First Nations’ standard of living.

 

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