How to build a bright future for First Nations and our new government

Posted on December 8, 2015 in Governance Debates – Opinion/Globe Debate
Dec. 08, 2015.   Perry Bellegarde

Perry Bellegarde is the National Chief, Assembly of First Nations

First Nations leaders, elders and youth from across the country gather Tuesday in Gatineau, Quebec for the Assembly of First Nations Special Chiefs Assembly. We come together in the wake of last week’s Speech from the Throne, opening a new session of parliament led by a new government. And we unite in anticipation of a new relationship with new opportunities to close the gap in the quality of life between First Nations people and the rest of Canada.

The new government has made a number of important commitments to First Nations. One is to “undertake to renew, nation-to-nation, the relationship between Canada and Indigenous peoples, one based on recognition of rights, respect, co-operation and partnership.”

Some may question why, in the face of urgent priorities and communities in crisis conditions, this is important. The answer is because it is only by taking a new approach to working together that we will succeed, once and for all, in addressing these urgent priorities.

The relationship established by our ancestors in treaty and agreements was based on mutual recognition, mutual respect, peaceful co-existence and sharing. That is the way forward.

There are two important things to consider as we embark on this new path together. The first is the continuing cost of failing to right the wrongs of the past. The second is the tremendous benefit to be realized when Canada’s First Peoples enjoy the same quality of life as Canadians.

The Centre for the Study of Living Standards found that, by 2026, closing the gap that exists between First Nations and Canadians could add as much as $400-billion to Canada’s economy and save $115-billion in social spending.

Today, the inequities are staggering. Canada ranks between sixth and eighth on the United Nations Human Development Index. But apply the same indices to First Nations people and we fall to anywhere between 63rd and 78th. The statistics around life expectancy, child poverty and infant mortality are unacceptable for a country as rich as ours.

There is much work to do and Canada’s new government has made a commitment to get to work with First Nations peoples. We must lift the decades-old two per cent cap on federal funding to First Nations and eliminate the funding gap it created, replacing it with a new fiscal relationship based on fairness, predictability and sustainability.

We are also calling on the government to establish a ministerial table with the AFN to ensure progress on priorities as set by First Nations leaders and their citizens. We must establish tables as a concrete action that allows a relationship where the Prime Minister and cabinet are working collaboratively with First Nations leadership. That would be a historic act befitting a new era of reconciliation.

Sharing is equally important. We must commit to revenue sharing so we can all prosper from the riches of this land.

We were never meant to be poor in our own homelands. Free, prior and informed consent must become the standard in any decisions that involve our territories to ensure any development is responsible and sustainable. To borrow a phrase, nothing about us, without us, be it law, administration, policy or procedure.

We are now on the cusp of a new opportunity to renew our relationship. We are ready to walk down the path toward a nation-to-nation relationship, to move forward together into an era of strength and prosperity for us all, and we welcome Canada’s commitment to walk with us.

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