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Assembly of First Nations national chief Shawn Atleo. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)
Assembly of First Nations national chief Shawn Atleo. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

SHAWN ATLEO

It's time to reset relationship between First Nations and Canada Add to ...

It’s increasingly a shared view in this country that we’re long overdue for a fundamental transformation in the relationship between First Nations and Canada. The current system is failing, and it’s time to smash the status quo.

The Globe and Mail recently ran a series on youth suicide and the trauma it creates. First Nations know this trauma all too well. We need only look to Pikangikum First Nation, a small community in Northern Ontario thought to have the highest suicide rate in the world. Yet, this is only one aspect of a long and lamentable list of challenges affecting our peoples, including poverty, disease and despair.

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Our collective failure to address these conditions has been long criticized by study after study and yet, frustratingly, progress has remained out of reach. First Nations lurch from crisis to crisis with governments’ responses motivated, to paraphrase Canada’s former auditor-general, more by headlines than by actually achieving change.

This situation is precisely why First Nations have suggested we need to move forward in new ways. The original treaties signed between First Nations and Canada speak to partnership and sharing. This is our shared heritage – both First Nations and all newcomers. We are all treaty people. In 2008, Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s apology for residential schools signified how far apart the relationship had drifted and set a practical and corrective course for reconciliation. In 2010, Canada endorsed the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, representing another important step forward in realizing what was always intended: partnership and mutual respect in all aspects of the relationship.

First Nations are driving forward strategies for new fiscal arrangements based on clear and consistent principles, including stability, equity and accountability. Past funding practices have left our communities ill-equipped and our families ill-served by remote bureaucratic control.

Resetting the relationship requires us to come together, as our ancestors did in the past, to talk about how to work together to move forward. We’ve called for a First Nation-Crown Gathering as a key forum for this discussion, hearkening back to that original relationship but looking squarely to the future. The Prime Minister has signalled his openness to convene such a gathering this winter.

We must work out the details together, but we envision a delegation of representative First Nations and the “Crown,” now embodied by the Prime Minister and his key ministers. Our goal is to establish concrete dialogue on joint plans and priorities, clarify responsibilities and clear away red tape so real progress and prosperity can take hold and flourish.

These are all things Canada’s former auditor-general said are essential. She made many useful recommendations that can inform our work, but the overarching one is for Canada and First Nations to work together.

This is our goal, and we see it as the hallmark of a new relationship that will lead to a stronger, more prosperous Canada for all Canadians. We’re not trying to turn back the clock. We want to reset the relationship on its original foundation of mutual recognition, mutual respect and partnership.

Ultimatums and guilt don’t motivate real change or action. Understanding and addressing the threats to Canada’s competitiveness and the barriers to development and jobs should concern everyone. The failure to act in the past has exacerbated dependency and cost the Canadian economy.

Resetting the relationship and affirming First Nation rights and First Nation government responsibilities to their people can unlock economic potential and generate significant and essential opportunity for all Canadians.

Shawn Atleo is national chief of the Assembly of First Nations.

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