IN THE SPOTLIGHT MAY 15: First Nations’ issues in a historical context

MP Alex Atamanenko's multi-part column on the First Nations begins with First Nations' issues in a historical context.

We have seen a fair amount of coverage in the news lately on First Nations’ issues. In this first installment on the First Nations, I think it might be helpful to put this into an historical context.

The situation of Métis, Inuit, and First Nations peoples is one of the most complex and persistent challenges for the federal government.

Successive Liberal and Conservative governments have failed to establish an agreement on the place of Indigenous peoples in the Canadian federation and their average living conditions remain far below other Canadians.

Aboriginal issues capture mainstream public interest in a cyclical way – when a crisis emerges. The Idle No More movement (INM) arose as a protest against changes to the Navigable Waters Protection Act, which were part of the Conservative’s 2012 budget implementation bill, but quickly became a nation-wide peaceful protest movement that has galvanized Aboriginal and non-aboriginal Canadians to demand change.

Popular pressure and a hunger strike prompted a high-level meeting with Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) in January, after which the prime minister agreed to provide oversight of the file. AFN National Chief Shawn Atleo’s decision to attend the meeting on the prime minister’s terms was controversial among First Nations and revealed a divide between First Nations leadership and a grassroots movement increasingly frustrated with the status quo.

The Aboriginal population represents approximately four per cent of Canada’s overall population.

According to Statistics Canada’s 2006 Census, there are approximately 1.7 million people who identify as having some First Nations, Inuit or Métis heritage in Canada, among whom almost 1.2 million report an “Aboriginal Identity,” marking a stronger attachment to that heritage.  Of this number, almost 400,000 are Métis, 50,000 are Inuit and the others (700,000) have “North American Indian” background.

Half of Aboriginal peoples in Canada are under the age of 25, and the population is growing at 2.5 times the rate of the rest of the country. This makes Aboriginal peoples the youngest and fastest growing population segment in the country, which will increase the significance of this demographic over time.

In 1969, the Trudeau government published a paper on “Indian policy” that recommended scrapping the Indian Act, abolishing the Indian Affairs Department’s special programs and transferring Indian lands to Indian people and away from ownership by reserves.

Aboriginal leaders denounced the paper as a recipe for assimilation. They said it rejected their special standing in Canada as the original occupiers of the land.  The Federal NDP joined them in this position.

Trudeau relented and in 1982, existing Aboriginal and treaty rights were recognized and affirmed in Section 35 of the Constitution. Despite several government policy moves towards recognizing self-government, successive Liberal and Conservative governments have failed to make progress on establishing a true “nation-to-nation” relationship.

Following the 1990 Oka Crisis, the federal government created a Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (RCAP). In 1996, RCAP made over 400 recommendations including that the Indian Act be replaced by a third order of government for Indigenous peoples within Canada.

This was welcomed by a majority of Indigenous peoples, as well as the Federal NDP. Progress on implementing the recommendations has been very slow, and most is left undone.

In 2005, just as they were heading to certain defeat after a decade in power, the Martin government put forward the Kelowna Accord.

In the Accord it pledged a $5.1-billion budget plan to address the low standard of living of First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples in Canada so that it would be equal to that of all other Canadians.

When the Harper government came to power, it promised to meet the targets of the Accord, but has failed to do so.

In 2008, the federal government issued an Official Apology to the Survivors of Residential Schools. In his speech, the prime minister acknowledged the important role NDP Leader Jack Layton had played in pushing for the apology to take place. (To be continued in First Nations Part II)

– Alex Atamanenko is MP for B.C. Southern Interior