December 9, 2013 Sections
Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION
Prime Minister Stephen Harper has done the right thing -- politically and morally -- in agreeing to meet with the Assembly of First Nations on Jan. 11, although a single meeting will not result in the fundamental changes being sought by aboriginal and other Canadians.
On Friday, Chief Theresa Spence said she would not end her hunger strike -- she was demanding a meeting within 72 hours, which won't happen -- but she should. Chief Spence may not have achieved the special meeting she demanded with the prime minister and Governor General, but Mr. Harper has conceded that events in the country required him to have a sit down with the appropriate native leadership.
Grand Chief Shawn Atleo and the Assembly of First Nations has invited Chief Spence to the meeting, so she really has nothing more to gain by continuing her fast.
The Idle No More movement should also call a halt, even though its protests were loosely based on broad dissatisfaction with native affairs in Canada, as opposed to Chief Spence's specific complaints about treaty rights and federal legislation she claimed would undermine aboriginal rights.
The Idle movement can resume its peaceful demonstrations at any time because, as Mr. Harper pointed out, Canada is a free country where protests and public opposition to government policies are a constitutional right.
The simple fact, however, is that solving the aboriginal problem is a long-term project that has witnessed success and failure over the last 50 years. During that time, Canadians have become increasingly aware of the hardships of First Nations and the injustice they have suffered.
Less known, however, is the progress that has been made. Thousands of aboriginals have university degrees today, compared to just a few in the past, and many are well-employed in the professions, trades and business.
They are associated with urban poverty and the inner city, but the fact is many thousands of them also live in the suburbs, own homes and cars, pay taxes and contribute to society in every way.
These facts have been forgotten by those who still see aboriginals as lazy Indians, and by those whose only understanding of First Nations is the appalling conditions on many of the country's remote and inaccessible reserves.
The conditions on some reserves have not changed dramatically in the past 50 years. In fact, they seem to have gotten worse as young people fall victim to drugs, alcohol and other stimulants that are the only release from lives of boredom and idleness. Violence has also escalated in step with the rising despair.
As for specific complaints, the Tories, as usual, have done a poor job of explaining the policies that are causing so much rancor.
Changes to the Navigable Waters Protection Act, for example, are not a threat to aboriginal resources. The government is reducing its jurisdiction to 97 lakes, 62 rivers and three oceans, while leaving the environmental management of minor streams and water bodies to municipalities and provinces.
It means more local control over projects without the excessive delays and red tape of the federal government.
An amendment to a law that allows First Nations to lease their land has been described falsely as an act to allow for the sale of aboriginal land, but all it does is speed up the process for possible lease deals that aboriginal leaders themselves have sought so they can compete for economic development.
On lack of consultation, well, cities, provinces and others have the same complaint, but aboriginals have made progress in persuading governments to understand they need to be consulted on issues affecting their interests.
Canadians should demand real and fundamental change for aboriginals, who also need to consider transformative policies. That's not, however, something that will result from Idle protests or threats of death by starvation.
Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 5, 2013 A14