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This article was published 30/1/2015 (2018 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
OTTAWA -- Last week Maclean's magazine ruffled a lot of feathers when it boldly proclaimed Winnipeg was ground zero for a racism problem in Canada that eclipses the issue in the United States.
This week, The Canadian Press is reporting on Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada documents that declare the quality of life on Manitoba reserves is worse than anywhere else in the country.
"Based on the UN Human Development Index, quality of life on Manitoba First Nations ranks the lowest in Canada," reads an AANDC Manitoba regional update report from 2014.
It's another battering ram to the face in Manitoba, a province where aboriginals make up a larger share of the population than in any other province and where the province's economic future is more than just a little entwined with the economic success of First Nations.
While there was plenty to criticize in the Maclean's report -- there was clearly no metric to prove Winnipeg has more of a racism problem than say Edmonton or Saskatoon or Toronto -- Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman ignored the sensationalism and rose to the occasion, admitting that, yes Winnipeg does have a racism problem and it's time to address it head-on.
Within a week he had set up committees and launched a website to get a conversation started on the subject.
It's not enough, but it's a start, and a public recognition that a problem exists and needs to be addressed.
Contrast that to Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt, who confronted with reports from his own department showing just how bad things are on Manitoba reserves, wasn't available to discuss it.
In his absence, a spokeswoman sent out a talking point saying "Our government believes that aboriginal peoples should have the same quality of life, the same opportunities and the same choices as all other Canadians."
The reports -- a series of 10 updates on the Manitoba region between 2012 and 2014 obtained by The Canadian Press through an access-to-information request -- show Valcourt's own department has known for several years First Nations kids in Manitoba have the lowest graduation rate and are far more likely to live in poverty than kids on reserves in other provinces. While one in four First Nations kids across Canada lives in poverty, in Manitoba that number soars to nearly two in three.
One-third of reserve residents in Canada are on welfare. On Manitoba reserves, it's almost half.
Imagine if the government sat on a report that said two in every three kids in Winnipeg were living in poverty. Or kept it quiet that only one in four kids were graduating from high school in Brandon.
"This is a real failure of leadership on his part," said Niki Ashton, the NDP aboriginal affairs critic and MP for Churchill. Her riding encompasses many of the most impoverished First Nations in Manitoba.
Ashton said she was sitting in question period Thursday when the headline about Manitoba First Nations was sent to her electronically and she glanced across the floor to see if Valcourt was there. He was.
"He's around, he's available," said Ashton.
But she said she's not surprised because she believes the federal government has "actively obstructed" First Nations who try to improve their living conditions.
Certainly the Treaty Land Entitlement process -- established to ensure First Nations are finally paid out the land promised to them by treaties signed more than a century ago -- isn't moving very fast, if it can be said to be moving at all. Last year, a grand total of 0.056 hectares was actually moved over via the TLE process -- which if you're wondering is about one-tenth the size of the football field where the Super Bowl will be played this weekend.
Ottawa has spent millions since 2008 battling against the idea of allowing the Kapyong Barracks site in Winnipeg to be approved as a Treaty Land Entitlement. The property -- about 65 hectares -- is prime real estate and could be used by First Nations as a development property that would bring in substantial revenues, and help them gain the kind of self-sufficiency many Manitobans often demand of them.
"A recurring theme in Manitoba is that the federal government is nowhere to be found," said Ashton. "If they are found, they are creating more problems."
Mia Rabson is the Free Press parliamentary bureau chief in Ottawa.
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