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November 27, 2011

A winter of aboriginal agony must lead to action

By any measure, there's a lot on the plate of Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan.

He is being accused of indifference by MPs while residents of the remote northern Ontario community of Attawapiskat live in a state of emergency, huddled against the cold in uninsulated tents.

After weeks of scolding by NDP MP Charlie Angus, Duncan appeared to ante up $2.5 million for the community Thursday, at least according to Chief Theresa Spence, before it was denied by the minister’s department.

“Canadians get it,” said Angus, who has received offers of help from around the world. “But what we see is an immense ability of the federal and provincial governments to ignore this misery and say ‘what’s the problem?’”

Duncan had to quickly funnel $5.5 million to northern Manitoba, after prodding from Liberals, to provide running water to communities on the Ontario border.

But close to 2,000 First Nations homes in this country remain without water service.

Former Prime Minister Paul Martin this week called the underfunding of aboriginal education in this country “absolute discrimination . . . the moral issue of our time.”

Wednesday, more than two dozen aboriginal communities in Manitoba and Northern Ontario filed a multimillion dollar lawsuit accusing the federal government of underfunding aboriginal education.

“At some point you have to say enough is enough, too many of our children are not reaching their potential,” said Grand Chief Diane Kelly, who represents the 28 Anishinaabe bands that filed the suit.

The same day, the Senate human rights committee tabled a report calling on Duncan’s government to do more to help aboriginal communities deal with the sexual exploitation of children.

Statistics Canada reported this week that aboriginal unemployment is almost double that of non-aboriginals.

That would appear to be more than enough to keep the minister busy.

So Duncan sprung into action Wednesday.

He headed out to the Whitecap Dakota First Nation in Saskatchewan to reintroduce legislation that would force First Nations to prepare audited financial statements and publicly disclose the salaries and expenses of their chiefs.

The quarrel here is not with the substance of the legislation.

Transparency is vital and some of the salaries and per diems revealed last autumn by the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, showing chiefs with take home pay outstripping provincial premiers, are impossible to justify.

Saskatchewan MP Kelly Block, who introduced a similar private member’s bill in the last Parliament, says the legislation will “pave the way for economic prosperity for First Nations.”

But with a number of files ablaze all about him, Duncan’s priorities seem askew, if not downright misplaced.

“Paving the way,” is something you do when everything in fine and you are looking to the future.

Duncan and Prime Minister Stephen Harper have to look at the present on the aboriginal file and deal with it with some urgency.

The enormity of the problems with First Nations across this country is gaining widespread national attention.

It’s time, says Shawn Atleo, the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, to stop lurching from crisis to crisis.

He said he had no problem with the thrust of the Duncan transparency bill, but said it was time to address the substance of First Nations challenges.

“Our future and our country’s future depends on the unleashing of the potential of our young people,” he told me Thursday.

Atleo said the era of unilateral decisions made by governments for First Nations — the historic pattern of paternalism — must be ended and the government and aboriginal leaders must go forward jointly.

“We need to hit the reset button on the relationship,” he said.

He believes we are at a tipping point, and he may be right.

The misery of Attawapiskat, the medieval living conditions in northern Manitoba and the tragedy of the underfunded education of aboriginal youth are all symptoms of a larger problem that must be faced.

Atleo is hopeful of a winter summit with First Nations leaders and the Prime Minister.

There are signals from Ottawa that it will happen.

It is long overdue.

Published On Thu Nov 24 2011 in the Toronto Star

Tim Harper is a national affairs writer.

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