Canada’s First Nations (Not "Indians") Deserve Better

On May 31, 2005 Canada’s First Nations and the federal government signed a Political Accord towards the recognition and implementation of First Nations Governments.

There was no front page coverage of this major news story. Not a single Canadian newspaper even ran an editorial on it.

Yet Assembly of First Nations National Chief Phil Fontaine called it an "historic step forward for First Nations in their relationship with the federal government" and "an opportunity to give life to the inherent Aboriginal and treaty rights of First Nations, as recognized in Canada’s Constitution."

"This political accord removes the straitjacket from federal policies and programs and sets the stage for a new relationship between First Nations," he added. "The recognition of our rights as expressed in the Constitution is long overdue."

It is indeed overdue, Chief Fontaine!

It is overdue, not only for our First Nations, but also for the rest of Canada. We Canadians need to know and to acknowledge the wrongs done to our First Nations. It is time to stand up against the regressive voices that negatively stereotype them. It is time to work with them towards national healing and reconciliation.

Canada has some 700,000 First Nations people (about the same number of Canadian Muslims, in fact). But our federal government still calls Andy Scott the Minister for "Indian" Affairs and seems to have little or no intention of correcting a 500-year-old linguistic (and racist) mistake.

Following the signing of the accord, Chief Fontaine commended the Prime Minister "for recognizing that moving towards self-government is crucial to addressing the social and economic conditions affecting our communities. We can make tremendous progress on long-standing issues by addressing urgent priorities through this new framework that addresses real self-determination, self-government negotiations, inherent rights, Treaty implementation, resource and revenue sharing and access to resources in traditional territories."

The accord commits First Nations and the federal government to the establishment of a joint steering committee to undertake and oversee cooperative action on policy changes, including the development of frameworks for the recognition of Constitutional, treaty and inherent rights; capacity-building opportunities for First Nations governance; and processes and legislation that will enable the development of First Nation governments.

But our First Nations deserve better. They deserve a fast track for these policy implementations.

Following armed confrontations between police and First Nations at Oka, Gustafson, and Ipperwash (Lake Huron), the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples gave the federal and provincial governments five volumes of advice saying the country could no longer abandon its First Nations to backwoods or slums. The commission proposed that our First Nations gain the power and resources to be truly self-governing.

In 1998, the federal government made a formal apology for the abuses inflicted through native residential native schools and provided a $350 million "healing fund" — only because six thousand lawsuits by former students threatened to bankrupt the four Christian churches that had run the schools for the government.

The government of British Columbia had never acknowledged native land claims, even though First Nations claimed 70 per cent of the province’s area. In 1994, the BC NDP government promised to negotiate a land settlement, but the Reform and the BC Liberal parties pledged to overthrow the treaty if elected.

With all the injustice inflicted on them, Canada’s First Nations are still being blamed for their disadvantaged conditions — a lower than national average income, a higher than national average unemployment level, and major drug and alcohol addiction problems.

But Canada’s First Nations can be proud of the current new generation of young chiefs, lawyers, teachers, social workers, and other professionals who are now serving their communities. And they also should be proud of their recent political settlements with different levels of government, including last month’s accord.

In 1999, Nunavut became a territory, and won control over half of the former Northwest Territories, or a third of Canada’s landmass. Good for them, and good for Canada.

When the UN next selects Canada as the world’s best country to live in, I hope our First Nations believe this to be true. But they and we are still a long way off.