First Nations chief calls for government action

The Canadian government needs to step up and address the issue of Aboriginal poverty, according to the head of the Assembly of First Nations.

National chief of the Assembly of First Nations Phil Fontaine spoke at the University of Calgary Fri., Mar. 2 in a presentation hosted by the sociology department.

“The single most important challenge we face is poverty,” said Fontaine. “First Nations people are simply too poor. There is no good reason for this in Canada. Canada is one of the wealthiest nations in the world, consistently ranked between third and eighth in the world by the United Nations. But if you isolate First Nations people, we rank anywhere from 63 to 68, which means we are no better than Third World countries.”

“First Nations poverty is a stain on Canada,” he continued. “Canada, if it did things right, would be a model for the rest of the world, but right now, this claim cannot be made.”

Specific issues include a housing crisis, poor access to quality health care and education and unemployment rates that reach as high as 80-90 per cent in some communities. Fontaine also noted First Nations communities have a suicide rate approximately six-times higher than the national average, with young men below the age of 24 particularly susceptible.

Not content with simply stating what the problem is, Fontaine recognized that in order for conditions to improve, First Nations people need the support of the government and the business community. With this goal in mind, Fontaine is calling for a corporate challenge, where corporations are encouraged to partner with or invest in First Nations businesses.

“The corporate challenge aims to benefit First Nations communities,” said Fontaine. “Sixty per cent of our population is under the age of 24. [Since Canada] has an aging population, there is no reason why the business community cannot take advantage of this incredible resource offered by our community–creating a highly skilled, highly mobile workforce.”

Fontaine also mentioned the Kelowna accord, which aims to close the gap between the First Nations peoples and the rest of the country. The deal, which was the result of 18 months of work, proposed $5.1 billion in funding from the federal government. While the government initially agreed to the ideas driving the accord, there have been no tangible results, noted Fontaine.

“I think we would all agree that the money went to a one per cent decrease in GST, because that also cost $5 billion,” said Fontaine.

Fontaine was quick to dispute critics who accuse First Nations of poor money management.

“Many say that there is enough money, that the problem is actually in structure,” said Fontaine. “Of the $9 billion that supposedly goes to First Nations, less than $5 billion goes to First Nations governments–these initiatives speak well to people who believe that chiefs and councils are responsible for everything that is wrong with the communities. One can’t argue in a reasonable way that chiefs and councils are responsible for this. What we are seeing is a terrible, disingenuous approach that says, ‘Blame the victim.’ The argument goes that First Nations are poor because of the reserve system, or because there are too many chiefs.”

“For us, the issues that get the most coverage are problems,” he added. “Once you start talking about problems, people despair. I would much rather see success stories. People don’t know about these success stories, these incredible achievements, because they are hard to market.”

When asked about the potential for a federal election this spring, Fontaine said he hopes First Nations issues will be included in the debates.

“We want our people to participate in the electoral process,” said Fontaine. “In fact, we are entering into the second phase of an initiative with Elections Canada. We want our people to be engaged. There are at least 63 ridings in the country where we can make a difference.”

“It would be unfortunate if an election were to be called without a resolution of some of the most important issues faced by the country, including First Nations poverty. If there is an election, we would hope that the debate would include these issues.”

Whether or not there is an election, Fontaine will continue his work.

“We are not a mainstream political party,” he noted. “My responsibility is to engage with governments of all political stripes. We don’t pick sides.”

Fontaine, who hails from Manitoba, was re-elected to his third term as national chief of the assembly of Manitoba chiefs in July 2006. The national assembly is a political organization which acts as the voice of First Nations citizens, representing 633 communities and roughly 800,000 individuals.

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