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Haida artist Chief James Hart's sculpture The Three Watchmen graces Parliament Hill on Jan. 23, 2012 ahead of a landmark Crown-first nations gathering. (Sean Kilpatrick/Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)
Haida artist Chief James Hart's sculpture The Three Watchmen graces Parliament Hill on Jan. 23, 2012 ahead of a landmark Crown-first nations gathering. (Sean Kilpatrick/Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

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We are all responsible for the plight of Canada's first nations Add to ...

There has been movement – real movement – on the aboriginal file. While signs of despair are abundant, Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s apology, on behalf of all Canadians, about Indian residential schools was a major step toward reconciliation. This month, the release of major report on the management and funding of first-nations education, represented a significant response to the most fundamental challenge facing aboriginal communities, namely underperformance in school. As all participants, governments and aboriginal leaders alike, will quickly agree that it is not enough. The problem: There is no consensus about what to do next.

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Canadians are well aware of the issues facing aboriginals. Who is not moved by news of the housing and living conditions in many of this country’s remote aboriginal communities? They would be even more upset and angry if they realized the full extent of story: that there are dozens of Attawapiskats and Kashechewans across the country, that the systemic unemployment is so widespread as to engender despair among even the most optimistic community developer, and that the silent scourge of aboriginal life in Canada – fetal alcohol syndrome and fetal alcohol effects – is erecting a formidable barrier against attempts at meaningful change.

The country is, however, strongly divided about what to do about the first-nations issues. Opinion falls neatly into two camps. Most first-nations leaders and many non-aboriginal Canadians say that responsibility lies with the government of Canada. Ottawa, after all, created the Indian Act, residential schools, and the reserve system and, therefore, the cultures of dependency and despair that characterize first-nations communities. Having created the mess, the argument goes, they should move quickly and forcefully to repair the damage, providing equality of opportunity if not equality of circumstance, and to remove the blight on the nation’s good character.

The opposing view is just as strongly presented. The problem, it is said, lies with the first nations themselves. They need to root out corrupt politicians, abandon uneconomical reserves for towns and cities, reject further reliance on government “handouts,” and free themselves and the country from the unsustainable dependence on the Government of Canada. Some go so far as to promote the elimination of “special” Indian status; most stop short of that unrealistic idea and argue that First Nations have to take responsibility for the future of their communities. But culpability in this formulation clearly rests with First Nations leaders and their governments.

They are both wrong – and pursuing these lines between government and first-nations responsibility will only continue to divide first nations from other Canadians, ossify policy and community development, and ensure that, 20 years from now, we will still be worrying about the same problems and struggling to address the challenges of the same hurting communities. But if the problem is not “owned” primarily by either the government of Canada or the first nations, who then is responsible for dealing with what many observers believe to be insurmountable problems?

The answer is simple: We are. Canadians as a whole have to take ownership of the challenges facing first-nations communities. First nations have to do their part, to be sure, and effective and transparent government is essential. The government of Canada (with more co-ordination with the provinces) must be actively involved, as a funder and policy-maker, with appropriate support for education and community health being among the most urgent priorities. But if the country is to ever to transform the first-nations debate and move it in productive and meaningful ways, the country as a whole must take part. Our single greatest national challenge can only be tackled as a nation-wide movement of the highest priority. As a child, more than one of our teachers used to say that if you pointed a finger at someone, you had three fingers pointing back at you. So it is with aboriginal issues in Canada.

If Canadians really want change – and we known that the overwhelming majority want dramatic improvement in aboriginal circumstances – then the paradigm has to shift. We need business leaders to step forward and commit to working with first nations to create sustainable economies – as some, like former prime minister Paul Martin, are already doing to good effect. We need civil servants and private-sector managers to serve as mentors to first nations administrators struggling with unbelievable pressures and challenges. The country needs trade unions to take the lead on creating new and safer places for aboriginal people in the work force and cultural groups to provide additional opportunities to celebrate Indigenous cultural contributions.

The churches, gun-shy beyond belief by the fallout from the residential school system, need to rediscover the social gospel ethic that made the mainline churches in this country among the most creative and energetic in the industrial world. The churches need to commit themselves, congregation by congregation, to rebuilding indigenous communities in need. Canadian service clubs and not-for-profit organizations need to work with first nations and other groups to broaden the range of services and facilities available in remote communities. Young people from across the country need to leave their urban comfort zones and commit themselves to working in remote and isolated communities.

Canada needs colleges and universities to make more of an effort to train first nations people in their communities, rather than relocating the students to their often-intimidating large campuses. These same institutions need to stop putting so much effort into streaming First Nations people into select fields – law, social work, education – and to broaden the reach of business, technological, apprenticeship, administrative and career-ready programs. The country needs to support the continued work of training organizations like the National Centre for First Nations Governance that are raising the standards for aboriginal political and public affairs.

Canadians need to stop looking for panaceas – the sweeping constitutional change, the one critical government program, the revolution in first nations governance – that will miraculously solve all aboriginal problems, reverse the crises and assuage our collective guilt. There are no magic solutions. What lies ahead is a great deal of hard work, sure to be filled with moments of despair and failure, as well as celebration. The search for meaningful change involves building hope community-by-community, working with leaders and residents that want, profoundly, to alter their trajectory and create new opportunities. More than anything, it requires ten thousand – no, make that at least a million – Canadians to decide that they will step forward and create the Canada that they want, inviting First Nations fully into the fold as neighbours, friends and full partners in Confederation. It is about time all Canadians began to live as treaty peoples.

Canadians have a real choice: We can wait for the government of Canada to act, while recognizing that historic legacies, legal requirements and financial constraints tie their hands. We can wait for first nations to address the governance shortcomings and financial challenges in their communities, while acknowledging that no other group in Canada faces such formidable barriers to success. Or, perhaps, we can simply exercise our collective responsibilities and address the crises being faced by fellow Canadians.

Difficulties as deeply entrenched in history, law, politics and public sentiment as those facing First Nations are not going to be addressed overnight. But, for crying out loud, we have all stood on the sidelines for far too long. Let’s stop claiming it is the government’s duty or the first nations’ fault. Let’s take collective responsibility for the greatest blight on the body politic of what is otherwise the greatest country on earth.

The first step – the hardest step – is also unbelievably easy. Reach out to first nations, nearby or far away. Do not wait for “government” to solve deep and systemic problems that, properly, lay with all Canadians. Canadians have always had a passion for social justice, whether from a social democratic, liberal, or conservative tradition. However, trying to recreate a 1960s-type social service solution for first nations is simply not on for Canada, if it ever was. Today, we need a new approach, a true 21st century model that draws the citizens of this country into one of the greatest challenges Canada has ever faced and that changes the way Canadians work together to solve their problems.

Responding to the challenges of first-nations communities, creating a path to opportunity, cultural sustainability, and economic engagement, would be an achievement worthy of a wealthy, caring and intelligent nation. We have waited too long. We can wait no longer. All Canadians must extend hands of friendship and mutual respect to their First Nations Canadian neighbours. We must, as a country, realize that we can change the world for the better. We start now.

Ken Coates is professor of history at the University of Waterloo. Greg Poelzer is associate professor of political studies at the University of Saskatchewan.

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