Last year during the Crown-First Nations Gathering, the Prime Minister promised that he and his government would ‘reset’ the relationship with First Nations. He promised to work with First Nations to improve social and economic outcomes in their communities. He said, “And the greatest respect that we can show to First Nations men and women is to provide them with the tools they need, to credit them with the capacity and then allow them to move forward.”
As we approach the one year anniversary of the Gathering, little progress has been made on the goals set during that meeting. In fact the relationship has become more fractured. The trust has been broken and the paternalism has continued. The hopes symbolized by the moving ceremony of `reversing the wampum belt` have been dashed.
Since the Gathering, the government has unilaterally imposed legislation on First Nations’ financial reporting, matrimonial property on reserves, regulation of water and wastewater, First Nations elections and various portions of the Indian Act– all without proper prior consultation and without the necessary resources to implement all these changes being imposed upon them.
The Conservatives also followed the Gathering with significant cuts in funding for First Nations, Inuit and Métis organizations that were delivering health and healing programs from coast to coast to coast. It also cut funding to tribal councils and other First Nations organizations, particularly targeting the advisory and advocacy roles, to further silence First Nation voices.
The education gap is widening in terms of both funding and outcomes, housing shortages are becoming more acute, water and wastewater systems are in crisis and the tragic gaps in First Nations health outcomes are continuing unabated.
However, the government is sending out spokespeople saying that they have, “made an incredible amount of progress in six years of government with respect to various programs.” They parrot government “talking points” making ridiculous claims and throwing out truly misleading numbers about First Nations consultations, education, housing and water to suggest the frustration of Chiefs, and average Aboriginal Peoples, is misguided
The Conservative talking points are dishonest and reprehensible. They say one thing and do exactly the opposite and their hypocrisy is making people mad.
The Conservatives claim that “the government of Canada conducted 5,000 consultations last year with First Nations people on a variety of issues.” Conservatives have to understand that one way information sessions after decisions are made do not constitute consultations.
To suggest they have consulted with First Nations on the egregious omnibus Bills C-38 and C-45 is simply ridiculous. There were no prior consultations about changes to the Indian Act regarding Aboriginal Fisheries, First Nations land management and, in particular, major changes to environmental protection for their lands and waterways. This is bad for all Canadians and impacts First Nations’ rights. As the ‘Idle No More’ movement has said, this is not a ‘native issue’ – it concerns all those who drink the water, swim in it, paddle on it or fish in it.
Conservatives defend their failure on First Nations education by saying they have “built 30 schools across the country [and] renovated 200 others.” The real issue is that students attending school on reserve are funded at half to two-thirds the per student annual rate of students in provincial systems and only one third of First Nations students on reserve are graduating high school. The graduation rate is not improving and instead of fixing the disgraceful education funding gaps, the Minister is actually denying they exist.
The Conservatives defend their refusal to deal with the on-reserve housing crisis by claiming that they have “built 10,000 homes” over the last 6 years. The fact is that they are simply trying to take credit for falling short of what should have been 13,800 homes built under funding levels predating their government. They have also failed to deal with their own February 2011 federal evaluation of First Nations housing, which concluded that the housing shortage on reserves is severe and only getting worse with 20,000 to 35,000 new units needed to meet current demand. The Assembly of First Nations has identified a gap of as much as 85,000 units. The Conservatives have no long term plan to deal with this shortfall and – let’s be clear – this shortfall already takes into account new homes built between 2006 and 2011. Despite overcrowding rates on reserves six times those of off-reserve and more than 40% of on-reserve homes in need of major repairs, the Conservatives actually spent 43% less on housing during the last fiscal year than in 2006/07.
The government defends it appalling record on First Nations water and wastewater by noting they, “conducted the largest assessment of safe water and waste water in this country so that we could move forward with prioritization.” That estimate identifies a funding shortfall of ($1.2 billion immediately and $4.7 billion over 10 years) to deal with the First Nations water and wastewater capacity gap and yet the Conservative government only provided a small fraction of the resources their own review identified – $330.8 million spread over two years – in the last budget. Almost 2 years after the federal assessment there are 117 First Nations communities across Canada under Drinking Water Advisories, an increase of over 23% since 2006, and the government has no long term plan to get a handle on this crisis.
The frustration of Aboriginal Peoples is understandable given the litany of broken promises, complete lack of progress on their issues and the refusal of the government to fulfill its legal obligation to consult with them on matters that may impact their inherent and/or treaty rights.
Thousands of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people are in the streets and online demonstrating right across Canada through the ‘Idle no More’ movement. First Nations have launched a lawsuit asking the courts to review the portions of the most recent omnibus bill impacting their rights. Attawapiskat Chief Teresa Spence is on day 30 of her hunger strike – with others fasting in solidarity- demanding the Prime Minister and the Governor General come to the table in good faith to begin to repair this crucial relationship. Unfortunately the success of a crucial meeting between the Prime Minister and First Nations leaders set up to respond to frustration expressed so forcefully is in jeopardy.
The Conservatives are unbelievably telling upset First Nations with legitimate grievances that they just don’t understand how much progress has been made. They refuse to understand that their rhetoric and behaviour is dangerously undermining an already strained relationship between the government and First Nations. This has very real consequences for all Canadians. Beyond the moral obligation to deal with completely unacceptable social gaps for Aboriginal Peoples, the Conservatives mishandling of this relationship and failure to consult could endanger what this government is hoping will be the engine of Canada’s economic recovery – natural resource development.
Almost every resource development activity currently operating or planned is occurring within 200 kilometres of a First Nations’ community and on their traditional lands. The Canadian Council of Chief Executives has said Aboriginal peoples must be “true partners” in resource and energy projects and the Prime Minister’s own former senior cabinet minister Jim Prentice chastised this government last fall saying, “The Crown obligation to engage first nations in a meaningful way has yet to be taken up.” Too many resource development projects are moving forward without Aboriginal Peoples being engaged as partners in their development or receiving a fair share of the economic benefits. The Conservatives’ “take it or leave it” approach – and refusal to properly consult – has left First Nations with no option but to go to court, thus far successfully, to enforce their rights. This will simply freeze development while expensive and time consuming litigation moves through the courts for years – or even decades.
The Communique on the outcomes of the January 24, 2012 Crown – First Nations Gathering Strengthening Our Relationship – Unlocking Our Potential. stated:
“Since first contact and the issuance of one of our founding constitutional documents, the Royal Proclamation of 1763, the evolving Crown – First Nations relationship has helped shape modern-day Canada. First Nations fought as allies of the Crown in the American Revolution (1775-1783), the War of 1812; and have continued their support of Canada in every major conflict since. Unfortunately, there have been low points in our relationship. A series of misguided and harmful government policies in our past has shaken First Nations confidence in our relationship.
We cannot undo the mistakes of the past, but we can learn from them and affirm that they will not be repeated. In this year, the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812 and with next year being the 250th anniversary of the Royal Proclamation of 1763, it serves as an appropriate time to reinvigorate the Crown-First Nation relationships. “
But this past year has been a disaster. Observers have characterized the present situation as a ‘tipping point’ in relations between the Government of Canada and First Nations.
It is in the interests of all Canadians that the Prime Minister turns this around. We need the 96% of non-Aboriginal Canadians to understand what is at stake. We have to redouble our efforts in Aboriginal education for non-aboriginal Canadians. They need to better understand that the treaties were a promise by the Crown to share the natural resources of the land fairly. Canadians need to understand the appalling effects of the Indian Act, the intergenerational trauma of residential schools and the reality that an embarrassing number of indigenous peoples in Canada are living in Third World Conditions.
The Prime Minister must understand the seriousness of the situation. This is a tinderbox. He has too ‘JUST TAKE THE MEETING’. Four hours is not too much to ask. First Nations are prepared to lead the way out of this mess. He needs to listen to them.
The Prime Minister is the only one who can make it happen.