TORONTO STAR: Reality jostles with hope in advance of na tives’ meeting with Harper
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Sent: Sunday, January 01, 2012 8:16 PM
Subject: TORONTO STAR: Reality jostles with hope in advance of natives' meeting with Harper
Reality jostles with hope in advance of natives' meeting with Harper
January 01, 2012
Shawn Atleo, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, says he's "confident the stark problems of Attawapiskat in northern Ontario will provide impetus to not just talk about solutions but find the willpower to make them a reality." Dave Chan/for the Toronto Star
OTTAWA-A northern Ontario aboriginal community in crisis, a high-level summit to tackle chronic problems facing Canada's First Nations people - and hopes that those problems may finally be solved.
That could be the storyline going into the Jan. 24 meeting between the federal government and Canada's First Nations leaders.
But that was the backdrop in late 2005, when then-prime minister Paul Martin, premiers and the leaders of five native groups huddled to hammer out the Kelowna Accord, an agreement to invest $5 billion in priorities facing aboriginal communities.
Within a year, that deal was dead, killed by the newly elected Conservative government.
Shawn Atleo can rhyme off many of the royal commissions, studies and other well-intentioned moves over the years that have highlighted the struggles facing Canada's natives but had less success in achieving lasting solutions.
Now, as the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations prepares for the upcoming "Crown-First Nations Gathering," he's confident the stark problems of Attawapiskat in northern Ontario will provide impetus to not just talk about solutions but find the willpower to make them a reality.
And he's hoping Canadians - who help build homes in Haiti, provide clean drinking water in Africa and build schools in South America - are now pushing for similar action in their own backyard.
"Attawapiskat is the first time we've had YouTube bring the kind of stark images that you would expect somewhere else in the world," Atleo said in an interview.
"Those are images that cut through really a lot of the conversation. It really touches people's hearts. And then the questions start to emerge.
"It's really encouraging that so many Canadians are saying, 'We need to seize this moment.'
"It feels like there is a raising of consciousness and I'm hopeful that maybe this is the tipping point that pushes us over the edge towards real change."
There were similar grand hopes coming out of Kelowna in 2005, that investments in education, clean drinking water, economic opportunities, housing and health care would have a lasting impact on aboriginal communities.
At the time, tales of bad water and the emergency evacuation of residents of the Kashechewan reserve in northern Ontario were in the news.
With the deal in hand, leaders boldly proclaimed that aboriginal poverty had "turned the corner." Phil Fontaine, Atleo's predecessor at the Assembly of First Nations, said the 10-year strategy would turn "poverty into prosperity."
But mere days later, Martin's minority Liberal government was defeated, setting in motion an election that the Conservatives won.
Liberal interim leader Bob Rae calls the Tories' cancellation of Kelowna "disgraceful" and says it's time for a dramatic overhaul in relations with Canada's First Nations' people.
"I think it's a time for a truly transformative period. I think the objective has to be to get rid of the Indian Act. I think the objective has to be to have a dramatically sped-up process for settling treaties and land claims," Rae told the Star's Susan Delacourt.
"We need to have a program for a sharing of resources with respect to people on reserve and in remote communities that will give them the means to actually run their communities.
"You can't solve the problems without self-government, without a much greater focus on education, and without figuring out how we're actually going to give resources to communities that simply don't have the resources to do what they have to do."
Sheila Fraser left her post as auditor general in the spring sounding a similar warning. She denounced the fact that students on reserves fare worse in school than do students elsewhere in Canada, that half of the drinking water systems pose a health threat, and that many live in overcrowded homes without enough sleeping space.
Indeed, in her last report in June, she urged an overhaul in the way Ottawa funds and manages programs on native reserves because living conditions have worsened over the past decade. The report found education, housing, child welfare and access to safe drinking water remain major problems on First Nations reserves and that the federal government has yet to meet key recommendations.
Atleo is hoping the January meeting will fix that. First Nations leaders and government must come out of that gathering resolved to tackle immediate needs - but also with a strategy for the long-term, he said.
"It's real tough to build economies if you don't have basic human necessities addressed," Atleo said. "It shouldn't surprise us that if we don't break this pattern that we're going to keep lurching from crisis to crisis."
The Conservatives make no apologies for discarding the Kelowna Accord, charging it was nothing more than a news release hammered out as the Liberals teetered on the brink of defeat.
In the ensuing years, they've tried to make their own mark. Harper gave a moving apology on Parliament Hill for the abuses of the residential school system. The Conservatives in 2010 committed to a joint action plan to improve life on reserves. They reversed course and backed the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. And in its June throne speech, the government committed to "renew and deepen" its relationship with aboriginal peoples.
"Concerted action is needed to address the barriers to social and economic participation that many aboriginal Canadians face," said the speech, meant to outline the government's priorities.
In a year-end interview with CTV News, Harper cautioned against seeing big changes overnight.
"I never see one meeting or one particular event, as you know, being determinative of the future. I think on aboriginal matters, as in all other matters, we will make progress one step at a time, with sustained effort over a long period of time," Harper said.
Atleo says it's time to tap the "economic and human potential" of the First Nations peoples.
"We've been focused on the problem instead of the First Nations potential and the potential of a shifted relationship," he said.
"We have to ask ourselves, are we going to be back here in six years again. We've done the thinking. . . . Now it really is a matter of will."
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