Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

There's a way to liberate First Nations

Canada has chance to bridge gap

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OTTAWA -- It was a shocking yet powerful development in the ongoing tensions between First Nations and the rest of Canada.

After an audit of the Attawapiskat First Nation was leaked to the media -- an audit that showed the reserve did not have the documents to account for more than 400 financial transactions between 2005 and 2011 -- the welcome mat to Chief Theresa Spence's compound on Victoria Island was pulled away.

Journalists who arrived at the entrance to the indigenous centre where Spence has lived since Dec. 11 were asked whether they were "friend or foe." Media were immediately designated as foes and turned back.

It seemed a bizarre response from a movement that needs public awareness and education to get its point across, but it is, quite frankly, a highly visible example of the growing chasm between First Nations and the rest of Canada.

It has become, or has always been, an us-versus-them scenario. And it has to stop.

Of course, the government chose to leak the audit last week in an attempt to gain back some of the momentum. Battling the image of a woman starving herself for the greater good of her people required something drastic.

That Spence and her team had known of this audit for months and should have expected the government to use it to play hardball when she delivered her ultimatum is both true and mostly irrelevant. That they were ill-prepared to handle it was a problem for them in the public-relations battle but doesn't change the fact Canada and its relationship with First Nations is badly fractured.

The fact is, the audit's release likely scuttled any chance the meeting between chiefs and Prime Minister Stephen Harper Jan. 11 would go off without a hitch. The ill will it created meant that for most of the rest of the week, the fight wasn't about treaty violations or rampant poverty, but about whether to even attend the meeting at all.

The mistrust First Nations already have of the federal government went into the red zone and there were too many who believed going into another meeting on the prime minister's turf and on his terms would not get anyone anywhere.

On the one hand, it is hard to believe a meeting to try moving forward on these extremely serious issues nearly didn't happen because of a dispute about who could attend the meeting and where it would be held.

But it's a sign of just how bad the relationship has become -- much like a feuding family where actions sometimes seem counterintuitive and petty.

Is this Canada's bottoming out? Is this the time when we finally might make headway to move both this country and its First Nations forward?

There are more than 700,000 aboriginal Canadians. Half are under 25. It is the fastest-growing population in this country and yet the least educated, least healthy and most disadvantaged. More First Nations youth will end up in jail instead of holding a high school diploma. Levels of violence, poverty, substance abuse, suicide and chronic illness are all unacceptably, shockingly, high.

There was no way a single, three-hour meeting was going to solve the crucial issues on the agenda, whether there were six chiefs at the table or 600.

But these problems won't be solved by not talking, so that the meeting happened at all, no matter how controversially, is perhaps still a good thing.

But will it matter that Harper has promised to brief his cabinet and start using his office to oversee treaty negotiations and land-claims cases? Only if by overseeing, he actually means he will make things happen.

And it doesn't appear there was much ground moved on issues such as revenue-sharing and economic development.

The only true way out of the mess we are all in is for First Nations to have it within their means to reap the benefits of their lands, to become self-sufficient and shed the shackles of the Indian Act in favour of true independence and prosperity.

Canada is on the cusp of potentially starting to solve the issues that have plagued our nation since before Confederation. We've been in this spot many times before, but the bridge has never been completed.

Let's hope maybe this time there is enough steel to make it all the way across the gap.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 14, 2013 A7

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