Whatever your opinion is on the actions of Chief Theresa Spence, her demands for consultation are supported by Canadian law, the constitution, and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Significantly, Chief Spence is no longer calling attention specifically to the community of Attiwapiskat, but rather bringing the world’s attention to the crisis of Aboriginal and federal relations in Canada. Concerns with treaty rights, environmental issues, poverty, and a lack of consultation are unifying a diverse grassroots group of first nations, Inuit and Metis.
Chief Spence continues to represent the focused resolve of an increasing number of people demanding dialogue on Aboriginal treaty rights with the legal authority of the Supreme Court’s ruling on the duty to consult on all matters that affect Aboriginal peoples.
When the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) chiefs meet with Prime Minister Stephen Harper later on Friday, it will be an important meeting even if Chief Spence and the Governor General do not attend. Former national chief Phil Fontaine has emphasized that native leaders will need to secure real commitments from the Prime Minister to end the impoverished state of first nations.
Mr. Harper’s record on Aboriginal issues indicates that he is aware of the urgent need to reconcile and to build new and productive relations with first nations peoples. He apologized in 2008 for the Indian Residential schools and began a process of reconciliation by setting up the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Mr. Harper then signed the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2010. This is a remarkable sequence of events and a seemingly positive progression in relations between the government of Canada and Aboriginal peoples. Juxtaposed to these actions, however, is the Harper government’s profound lack of consultation on Bill C-45 and other bills, severe funding cutbacks to Aboriginal organizations, and the abandonment of the Kelowna Accord -- leading into a period of strikes, blockades, demonstrations which seeded the emergence of the now international Idle No More (INM) movement.
First nation, Inuit and Metis Leaders, emboldened by the awakening of their communities through INM may reflect on the distance travelled and the ground lost. The Kelowna Accord was an unprecedented agreement with Aboriginal leadership based on 18 months of consultation. The Accord was characterized by a profoundly democratic strategic planning process with specific targets for addressing social inequalities through a $5-billion investment over five years. The Accord was an agreement to work collectively to bring high school completion rates on par with the non-Aboriginal population, to reduce youth suicide rates (the highest in the world) by 50 per cent and to provide potable water and improved housing conditions to first nation reserves. Investment in community economic development was pegged at $200-million and resources were provided for training in financial accountability. The funding targets and investments were a clear statement that the federal government was no longer willing to tolerate the substandard living conditions of Aboriginal communities and would no longer accept the disadvantages faced by Aboriginal youth from inadequate education and unequal opportunity.
What if Mr. Harper had invested in the Kelowna Accord as agreed upon by all First Ministers and Aboriginal leaders in 2005? Theoretically, we would have averted the Attiwapiskat housing crisis, we would have greater record keeping and financial accountability of First Nations, and we would have an increased number of Aboriginal children completing university and joining the labour market. We may also have realized the vision of the development of sustainable partnerships between Aboriginal peoples and the Canadian government and would have likely averted the crisis of relationship we are currently facing.
A study by the Centre for the Study of Living Standards shows that the disproportionate use of government services by Aboriginal peoples, as a result of their desperate socio-economic standing, cost taxpayers about $6.2-billion a year in 2006. If nothing is done to alleviate the situation, that figure is projected to grow by almost 40 per cent. If investments like those proposed in the Kelowna Accord were to lead to educational and labour outcomes for Aboriginals that were comparable to those of non-Aboriginals, governments would save $11.9-billion in 2026 (2006 dollars). The figure includes a decrease of $8.4-billion in government services costs and $3.5-billion in additional tax revenues in Canada in 2026. The study estimates that the cumulative benefit of investing in Aboriginal education and social well-being would be approximately $115-billion over the 2006-2026 period. If these calculations are even close to being correct, it appears that former prime minister Paul Martin understood that social investments in Aboriginal children, the fastest growing population in Canada, are not only a moral but a fiscal responsibility.
Today, we have a crisis in Canada. We have, however, an opportunity to gain lost ground by revisiting our past accomplishments and agreements. The Kelowna Accord was a progressive model for strengthening relationships between Indigenous peoples and governments and working collaboratively to close the inequality gaps in Canada.
Terry Mitchell is an associate professor, department of psychology, Wilfrid Laurier Univerity; Lori Curtis is a professor in the department of economics at the University of Waterloo