The rights of indigenous peoples

By Patrick Hunter Thursday January 10 2013 in Opinion
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First, let me get a very naïve thought out of my system: There should be a way for voters to insist that a program or policy of great value, started by a previous government, be continued by the incumbent.


In other words, if the government, headed by Liberals, initiates a program or policy that respects and recognizes the rights of a people, then whomever assumes the government after an election must continue that policy (or make it better) because the people specifically say it should.


Now, you are probably going to say that, in many cases they do. And I would agree to a point. But elections are run on a series of suggested options – “this is the direction in which I would take the country/province/city.” When the dust clears, very little resembling the proposed options remain and priorities are altered to fulfil certain philosophically preferred options that were not given full airing during the campaign.


Anyway, the reason for my airing this improbable idea is the on-going failure of the federal government in establishing and maintaining a respectful relationship with Canada’s indigenous peoples. Chief Theresa Spence of the Attawapiskat First Nations undertook a very dangerous (for herself) form of protest – a hunger strike – in an effort to get the ear of Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Chief Spence wanted Harper to understand that the conditions under which her people, and other First Nations people live, in an economy like Canada’s, is totally unacceptable.


In 2005, the Government of Canada, under the leadership of Paul Martin, reached an agreement with Canada’s first peoples to undertake a program of comprehensive makeover of First Nations communities, providing for programs from clean water to housing to education. The agreement, known as the Kelowna Accord, was essentially designed to raise the socio-economic life of Canada’s first peoples towards a level equal to the rest of Canada. One of the remarkable conditions of the agreement was that Canada’s first peoples would be an integral part of the planning and delivery of the program.


Shortly after the Kelowna Accord Implementation Act was passed, Martin’s minority government fell. The Harper Government succeeded and proceeded to ignore the Accord.


We have seen on television and in many reports over the years, the absolutely horrific conditions in which many First Nations communities live. We have watched the documentaries which provide raw details of homes in appalling conditions, in the middle of winters that make a Toronto winter seem like the tropics. We have seen the pictures of children who frequently go to bed with very little to eat and who had to share whatever little comforts they have with rats, in places that have no running water, and very little in the way of healthcare.


Our community – the African-Canadian community – in Canada has experienced an incredible amount of backward steps over the years. The First Nations communities have probably experienced worse.


Like most indigenous populations in many places in the world, First Nations communities welcomed the early settlers to Canada. Treaties were agreed on under the principle of sharing the land and its resources. As with most settler communities, that was not enough. Control of the land and resources, fuelled by greed and racism, was the objective.


As we have seen over the years, sharing power and control of resources, in many societies where a similar state of affairs exist, is not a high priority for the rulers. There has been a marginal movement towards accepting the moral context of the conditions that exist and seeing the need for change. But change comes very slowly and very reluctantly.


Canada has, on a number of occasions, acknowledged its past indiscretions – shall we say – and, made some form of reparations. But giving up or sharing power is not something that the powers that be are prepared to concede, yet. The unfortunate effect is that patience wears thin, anger rises, and actions taken that can sometimes be regretful.


Harper has consented to meet with First Nations leaders on Friday, and one assumes Chief Spence will be included. She continues her hunger strike in spite of the commitment to the meeting which she sought. One can only hope that a substantive outcome of the meeting will be sufficient to enable her to discontinue her strike. We are all concerned about her health.


I started with a naïve thought so I will bookend with a naïve hope – that one day soon governments will genuinely recognize and accept that they can be balanced in their approach to governing. They are entrusted with a certain authority to govern, ensuring that people are well cared for and respected. I believe the First Nations have been demanding respect more than anything else and one can only hope that this meeting represents a significant turning point in that direction.


Like I said: it is a naïve thought.


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