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From left, former Prime Ministers Joe Clark and Paul Martin look on as former Assembly of First Nations Chief Ovide Mercredi (centre) responds to questions during a news conference in Ottawa on Thursday, September 4, 2014. (FRED CHARTRAND/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
From left, former Prime Ministers Joe Clark and Paul Martin look on as former Assembly of First Nations Chief Ovide Mercredi (centre) responds to questions during a news conference in Ottawa on Thursday, September 4, 2014. (FRED CHARTRAND/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Former PMs, native leaders form group to promote co-operation Add to ...

A group of high-profile Canadians – including aboriginal leaders, a former Supreme Court justice and two former prime ministers – are launching a new non-profit organization aimed at tackling the problems facing aboriginal Canadians.

Described as “Canadians for a new partnership,” the organization stressed at Thursday’s launch the importance of channelling the frustration of aboriginals and non-aboriginals alike over the status quo into joint discussion and action on improvements.

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The volunteer-based organization is planning a lecture series across the country, but former Liberal prime minister Paul Martin insists the project will be a lot more than “fancy words.”

Mr. Martin points to the proposed development of Northern Ontario’s Ring of Fire as an example where positive relations could make an impact. Former Supreme Court justice Frank Iacobucci, who is Ontario’s lead negotiator in talks with the chiefs of the Matawa Tribal Council, is a board member of the new organization. Meanwhile, former federal Liberal leader Bob Rae, who is chief negotiator for the tribal council, is also a supporter of the new group.

“This is not pie in the sky,” Mr. Martin said at a news conference in Ottawa. “I think that what you are dealing with here is a group of people who have come together recognizing that there has to be action taken – and players who can really speak to that kind of action are part of the group.”

The new effort comes amid heightened attention this summer on aboriginal issues after a major Supreme Court ruling in June that strengthened aboriginal rights. Then last month, calls grew for an inquiry into missing or murdered native women after the violent death of aboriginal teen Tina Fontaine, whose body was pulled from the Red River in Winnipeg.

In an interview, Mr. Martin said the public and governments need to know that social issues and economic development are all linked and need to be tackled at the same time. Talk must lead to action, but Mr. Martin said there is also value in starting conversations among the broader public.

“One of the reasons that governments have just been able to turn their back on it is there’s no dialogue among Canadians on these issues,” he said.

Former Northwest Territories premier Stephen Kakfwi will play a leadership role with the new group. Both he and Mary Simon, the former president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, said the project is needed as a complement to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Ms. Simon noted that many aboriginals have spent the past few years hearing and telling painful stories of their experiences with residential schools. With that commission coming to an end, she said it is important that these stories are not forgotten.

“It’s about seizing a moment in our history,” she said. “We don’t want to be in a position where it’s all for naught.”

A promotional video posted online features several people – including former governor-general Michaëlle Jean – reading from a declaration that the group urges Canadians to sign.

The new organization describes itself as non-partisan. The board of directors includes respected independent figures such as former auditor-general Sheila Fraser. The group also includes some who have been highly critical of the federal Conservatives and does not appear to include anyone with close ties to the current federal government.

Though the group says it met with Conservative Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt to discuss the project, the minister’s office did not offer an opinion on the new group when asked by The Globe. Instead, the minister’s office provided a list of measures the government has taken to “create economic opportunities and improve the quality of life of First Nations.”

NDP MP Charlie Angus called the project an “enormously positive” development. In a phone interview, he said there is a need for more dialogue given the confrontational language of late from Mr. Valcourt, who said this year he would not meet with “rogue” chiefs who issue threats.

“This whole tendency in the last few years under the Harper government to really turn the notion of aboriginal leaders into some kind of bogeyman against the taxpayer, it’s not moving us forward as a nation,” Mr. Angus told The Globe by phone. “So let’s step out of the politics.”

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau issued a statement welcoming the new group.

The organization has received funding from the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation, the Government of the Northwest Territories, the Aboriginal Liaison Initiative of the International Boreal Conservation Campaign, NationTalk, the Walter and Duncan Gordon Foundation, First Peoples Group, McGill University and T.E. Wealth.

Joe Clark, who was a Progressive Conservative prime minister from June, 1979, to March, 1980, and later a cabinet minister in the Brian Mulroney government, is also a board member and spoke at the news conference.

“No one wants our First people to be treated as second-class Canadians,” Mr. Clark said. “I expect that too many Canadians simply don’t know enough about the depressing situation of many First Nation citizens, nor enough about the extraordinary success and accomplishment of so many.”

Mr. Clark said Canadians are becoming increasingly disengaged in the political process and the organization is an attempt to give the public a role.

“We believe that something can be done,” he said.

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