There is hope for Canada’s First Nations – by Ken Coates and Greg Poelzer (National Post – January 24, 2012)

The National Post is Canada’s second largest national paper.

…and a boiling crisis in Ontario. The Ontario government
does not really get the challenges and opportunities of its
north, particularly those of aboriginal communities, and is
currently more preoccupied with resource development than
aboriginal issues. (Ken Coates and Greg Poelzer)

Ken Coates is professor of history at the University of Waterloo. Greg Poelzer is an associate professor of political studies at the University of Saskatchewan.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s meetings this week with First Nations leaders have a quiet urgency about them. It has been a long while — really not since the final negotiations on the Kelowna Accord late in 2005 — since there was a First Nations meeting of this importance.

The shadow of Attawapiskat — and David Inlet and Kashechewan and other communities in crisis — hangs over this gathering. Conditions on many First Nations reserve communities are appalling and represent a national disgrace. Governments and First Nations leaders alike agree that education and economic opportunity are the keys to long-term revitalization. There is also a consensus that the housing conditions, facilities and infrastructure in many communities need immediate upgrading.

There is less agreement about what to do next. First Nations want more money; the Government of Canada wants greater accountability and transparency. First Nations demand greater autonomy and access to resource revenues. The Government wants improvements in local governance and viable economic strategies, particularly for remote communities.

But the distance between Ottawa and First Nations is smaller than one would assume from the current round of politicking. Shawn Atleo, Grand Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, is one of the most creative and determined politicians in the country. He wants solutions, not rhetorical wars. The Harper government, contrary to what its critics like to say, has made major commitments on the aboriginal file and wants faster and better solutions. It is willing to consider initiatives focused on one region or one community, allowing First Nations peoples to opt in or stay out. There is little insistence on blanket solutions for all First Nations. Tiresome portrayals of federal officials as uncaring and incompetent reveal a serious lack of understanding of the personnel and mentality of Ottawa on aboriginal affairs.

Canada has a growing number of models of communities that are doing well, of aboriginal governments addressing deep problems. Self-government is working much better than most observers appreciate. Economic conditions are improving, largely through joint ventures and a burst in indigenous entrepreneurship.

There are, at the same time, some huge barriers to meaningful action. The challenges, from decrepit housing to high unemployment, are deeply entrenched and costly to address. New schools can be built in the north and rural communities and funds provided for teachers. But, unless dedicated professionals go north for prolonged periods of time, homegrown professionals (who are much more likely to stay) are developed locally, and the community and families support the school, little will change. With migration off reserves, and with post-secondary education draining many of the most talented people into urban areas, communities wrestle with severe capacity issues. Add to these the age-old issues of isolation, small populations, distance from wage-producing economic activity, discrimination, the legacies of paternalism and limited local job prospects, and sustainable solutions become more elusive.

Federalism is part of the problem. The indigenous peoples in the northern territories, while still burdened by many challenges of their own, are seeing significant improvements. They have more resources, greater authority, more involvement with government, often more engagement with local economic activity and better relationships with non-aboriginal Canadians than their southern counterparts. Most importantly, with substantial power in their hands, territorial aboriginal groups have fewer reasons to complain about government mismanagement or inaction.

The provincial — and forgotten — north is altogether different. Here, arrangements vary greatly, with promising developments in Saskatchewan, Quebec and Labrador, ongoing difficulties in Alberta, Manitoba and British Columbia and a boiling crisis in Ontario.

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