Will the disgrace ever end?

winnipegfreepress.com – opinion/editorials
Posted: 06/13/2011.

The federal government and the Assembly of First Nations say they’re on track to reverse the decades — some might say centuries — of failure, poverty and dysfunction that plague Canada’s reserves. It’s hard to avoid the temptations of cynicism when it comes to aboriginal affairs, but several factors give modest cause for hope.

The two sides are developing concrete goals on education, economic development and governance that will be spelled out next winter. Canadians have heard the talk before and it almost always involved unilateral demands by First Nations for more money and more autonomy on how it was spent.

This time, however, the Harper government has made it clear it sees no point in merely issuing blank cheques, while the Assembly of First Nations itself concedes extra funding without clear goals and accountability by both sides is a losing proposition. Native leaders also realize they must make fundamental changes in the way reserves operate, even if it means offering some concessions.

This sliver of hope was followed by the latest update from the federal auditor general, who found not only has not much changed over the last 10 years, but some indicators of aboriginal wellness — housing, education and water quality — have actually declined.

The audit’s timing is fortuitous because it provides a partial way out of the morass and validates the approach Ottawa and the AFN appear to be following. Among other things, it says federal programs for First Nations require a legislative basis that will designate respective roles, responsibilities and eligibility. As it stands, there is no legislation or clarity on important areas such as education, health and drinking water.

There is also a need for legislation that commits Ottawa to provide statutory funding to meet defined levels of service, which would eliminate the current climate of uncertainty about funding from year to year.

First Nations also need organizations to support local service delivery, such as school boards, health service boards and social service organizations. The problem is many small reserves lack the skills for these jobs, but there’s no reason why they can’t be developed.

Above all, the audit report says First Nations themselves will have to play a role in bringing about change, which Ottawa cannot impose.

Canadians are sympathetic to the plight of First Nations, but many people are also growing weary of the endless and seemingly unsolvable troubles of reserves. The problems won’t be solved overnight, but they also won’t end without a commitment by all sides to decisive, fundamental change. Otherwise, Canada’s shame will linger like a war without end.

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