Deal with us as First Nations

Posted on January 31, 2008 in Debates, Equality Debates, Inclusion Debates

National Post – Opinion
January 25, 2008
Phil Fontaine,

Last Saturday, the National Post printed an article on its front page entitled “Real warriors hold a job,” which appeared as part of a new five-part series, entitled “Rethinking the Reserve.” The article examined various free-market solutions to the challenges that have plagued the native reserve system. What follows is a response from the National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations.

Recycling old ideas, approaches and solutions to deal with the socio-economic and demographic realities First Nation communities face, and repackaging them is the wrong prescription for change. Kevin Libin’s article, “Real warriors get jobs,” published by the National Post on Jan. 20, salaciously presents First Nations communities and governments as “the problem.” The author sounds alarmist bells of how we burden the system. We believe this does not generate a genuine and meaningful dialogue to chart a fruitful way forward.

There is no quick fix or magic bullet: The politics of blaming, naming and shaming First Nations and our organizations and painting us as wasteful, errant, criminal, stagnant, backward and irrelevant is counter-productive, reactionary and irresponsible. Libin promotes assimilation or integration as the solution, which betrays a lack of real understanding of our treaty relationships, our constitutionally protected aboriginal rights and the individual and collective dimensions of those rights.

Such thinking further negates the centrality of land and resources to First Nations’ social, cultural, spiritual, economic and political development and well-being. It also betrays a lack of overall understanding of the deep historical, institutional and political factors at the root of disheartening present-day realities in our communities.

In short, despite Libin’s depiction to the contrary, there is nothing fresh in the underlying ideas, assumptions and approaches for change in the “emergent wave of aboriginal thinkers and leaders” which he touts as the panacea to cure what he sees as the pathologies of First Nations reserves.

We need to shift how we frame the issue. The solutions must always start with Canadian governments effectively and meaningfully engaging First Nation governments. We can not trade economic success for cultural poverty; it is not an either/or strategy.

Let me be clear: We support, encourage and applaud the successes achieved by numerous First Nation communities, businesses and entrepreneurs across Canada in the shadow of historic and legal constraints. In this respect, our people are an intrinsic part of generating and implementing innovative solutions. To suggest a catch-all approach to a complex set of problems does a real disservice to First Nations and all Canadians, and it downplays the need for immediate government investment in our communities.

We have a tremendous opportunity before us. Canadian businesses face critical labour shortages and a looming labour force replacement crisis, while First Nations have the fastest growing and youngest population in the country. Investment in quality education and training for First Nations youth and young adults can provide an important segment of the skilled labour they seek. The high unemployment rate among First Nations’ youth and the country’s need for workers present an opportunity for a win-win solution that improves productivity and competitiveness while simultaneously addressing the greatest social injustice in Canada — First Nations poverty.

The resource sector — a principal engine of Canada’s economy –operates on First Nation traditional territories. The federal government projects that more than $200-billion will be invested in new developments over the next 10 years. Resource companies, and the governments that issue them licences and permits, must have effective working relationships with us that attend to the interests of all parties in a fair and timely manner. Sustainable development arrangements and fair agreements that respect aboriginal and treaty rights, as set out in the Constitution and elaborated by Canada’s courts, are a key part of the solution.

First of all, it is imperative that governments negotiate and resolve all of the outstanding land claims. They should also act responsibly to fulfill the duty to consult and negotiate resource revenue sharing agreements with First Nations. This will facilitate productive partnerships amongst First Nations, governments and the private sector to the benefit of all Canadians.

Support from the federal government for First Nations’ role in the labour force and in resource development will benefit the Canadian economy. The fact that these solutions can generate the financial capital that is so badly needed to rebuild sustainable First Nations’ economies and help alleviate the downward pressure of poverty in our communities is a critical driver for change.

First Nations communities are part of a mixed political and economic system and our capacity to innovate is in part based on working with the state, corporate partners, the voluntary sector and with our communities to build stronger capacities and effective plans for development.

Promoting, supporting and unleashing local decision-making is part of the answer. In the case of First Nations, there are dozens of studies, commissions and reports that confirm this basic fact. The solid plan laid out in the report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples remains the basis of the First Nations plan for action. Independent studies point to greater control by First Nations as a necessary precondition to economic improvement. To be self-sufficient, First Nations must be free and able to make choices. Reliance on the authority of others is not the means to greater self-sufficiency.

Economic development at the cost of our human rights is a non-starter. This is not to say that we are “anti-development” or “anti-industry.” First Nations want to enjoy the economic benefits of resources just as Canada has. For example, in my recent visit to the Victor Diamond Mine and the Attawapiskat First Nation in northern Ontario, I saw an excellent example of how the private sector and First Nations can work together in partnership. The mine will create hundreds of jobs, more than a decade of employment and make a significant contribution to the economies of Canada, Ontario and the First Nation. As in this example, all First Nations want to develop sustainable partnerships and resource-revenue sharing arrangements. We want more active relations with Canada’s business community. This is embodied in the Assembly of First Nations “economic blueprint,” which includes a corporate relations strategy to increase corporate procurement, investments, partnership and employment opportunities with First Nations.

The Assembly of First Nations, which is the only national organization with political legitimacy to speak for First Nations, has advocated for self-reliance for a very long time. Our answer is to recognize and respect First Nations’ ability to make our own decisions. That is real accountability.

Investing in First Nations is investing in Canada’s future.

-Phil Fontaine is National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations.

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