Statement made on 11 June 2009 by Phil Fontaine, National Chief, Assembly of First Nations
Phil Fontaine, National Chief, Assembly of First Nations:
Meegwetch. Good afternoon, honourable senators and distinguished guests. Today we celebrate and reflect on the one-year anniversary of the federal government's apology to residential school survivors, which set Canada on the path to reconciliation. Reconciliation is about coming to terms with a difficult history, respecting our unique relationships and the rights and responsibilities that come with that. It is about embracing new attitudes while working together to create a future that benefits First Nations peoples and all Canadians.
The path toward meaningful partnership and reconciliation has not been and will not be an easy one. We may not always agree, but partnership in an era of reconciliation implies a renewed Canada that is fundamentally about how we practise social justice, equality, democracy, human rights, inclusiveness, mutual respect and mutual responsibility.
A year ago today, the invitation was graciously extended to the Assembly of First Nations to return each year to this place to discuss the progress on the commitment made to First Nations by the government to forge a new path in our relationship in the spirit of reconciliation. I am honoured to be able to provide this update today on the state of reconciliation on the first anniversary of Parliament's apology to residential school survivors.
As June 11, 2008, attested, the residential school experience left the raw legacy of pain for myself and so many of us who attended. It decimated our families and communities, who endured the effects of our experiences in residential schools.
As a watershed moment in Canadian history, the apology to the survivors of residential schools was the first step in the process of acknowledging the truth and embarking on reconciliation. On that day, we came full circle. We were able to speak in the very place where our voices were absent, where our free will was legislated away and where decisions were made without our consent, against our will and with little regard for our humanity.
In April of this year, we visited with Pope Benedict XVI in Rome. We have received apologies from the Anglican, United and Presbyterian churches and the Government of Canada for the residential school experience. The expression of understanding, acknowledgement and emotion by His Holiness on behalf of the Catholic Church closes the circle of apologies, and we now move toward the path of reconciliation.
His Holy Father's apology, like the government's apology, not only acknowledged the past but, fundamentally, the apology was an admission that the prescription of the past has no place in the Canada of today and tomorrow. It is in this context of reconciliation that I stand here to address you all today.
Last June 11, the Prime Minister committed Canada to reconciliation. He promised that First Nations' rights would be respected, and that no government would ever again try to denigrate or destroy the identity of First Nations as distinct peoples, or compromise First Nations' culture and families.
This opportunity to speak to you is important in terms of guiding Canada toward reconciliation and building a Canada that respects and honours the treaty and historic relationships between First Nations and Canada.
The way I see it, there are four dimensions of reconciliation. Each of these dimensions contains a set of priorities and goals. Each of these categories is interrelated and interdependent, and our treaties cut across them all.
In broad terms, I believe the components of reconciliation are political, economic, legal and moral. Considerations of the political dimension of reconciliation include, but by no means are limited to, addressing First Nations' governance jurisdiction, building processes and institutions to facilitate dialogue so we can participate more inclusively in the Canadian, provincial and territorial governments.
Reconciliation also means that our own representative institutions and political organizations — that is, how we choose to represent ourselves — are treated with respect and as a legitimate expression of our inherent self-determination and self-government rights.
Article 19 of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples affirms these rights:
States shall consult and cooperate in good faith with the indigenous peoples concerned through their own representative institutions in order to obtain their free, prior and informed consent before adopting and implementing legislative or administrative measures that may affect them.
The economic dimension includes closing the socio-economic gaps of disadvantage between our people and children, and other Canadians. This dimension includes a full policy agenda to address child welfare, poverty eradication, education, health care, labour issues, economic development, just land claims resolution and other initiatives to improve our economic sustainability and self-sufficiency, and to improve our individual and community well-being.
The legal dimension of reconciliation means that we must ensure that section 35, our Aboriginal and treaty rights, is upheld, the rule of law is respected and that responsible government is fulfilled. This dimension is about pursuing the human rights of our children through the institutions that will provide a remedy to end discriminatory practices and a narrowing of our rights.
This dimension is also about Canada's international human rights obligations, and ensuring that instruments such as the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is implemented in our country, and that the draft Organization of American States Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is realized.
On that score, we remain profoundly disappointed that Canada continues to ignore the human rights of indigenous peoples by failing to implement the recommendation of the United Nations Human Rights Council made under Canada's Universal Periodic Review to endorse the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
Finally, the moral dimension of reconciliation is about the principles, values, attitudes and ideas that underlie a new relationship and partnership between First Nations and Canadian governments, as well as a new relationship between First Nations and Canadian society. In a post-apology era, the honour of the Crown must be a defining feature in the new relationship where legal obligations are vigilantly observed, where First Nations are diligently consulted and accommodated on all matters affecting our lives, and our right to free, prior and informed consent is respected.
Bill C-8, a bill in which the government imposed a paternalistic view on how First Nation governments ought to address domestic land matters upon family breakdown, demonstrates that we have some way to go before real partnership and real consultation has real meaning in this country. This bill suffers from an irreparable lack of legitimacy among First Nations citizens, including First Nations women, even though the government claims the contrary.
Let it be clear that First Nations care deeply about our human rights — the human rights of the women in our communities, our children, our families and our communities.
The principles of reconciliation, such as mutual respect, coexistence, fairness, meaningful dialogue and mutual recognition, are not empty words. These principles are about action; that is, they give shape and expression to the material, political and legal elements of reconciliation.
It has been an eventful year in Canadian and global politics, society and the economy since last June. First Nations have been affected by the decisions of the Government of Canada during this time. Following prorogation last December, we were extremely busy compiling a First Nations' stimulus package. At the January 2009 First Ministers meeting, we presented it to the government for budgetary consideration.
The Assembly of First Nations' economic stimulus plan for First Nations calls for immediate action on First Nations' infrastructure to create jobs for our people and safer, healthier First Nation communities. We call for investments in First Nations' education to secure a strong and competitive economy now and in the future; and we ask for a repayable loan fund to encourage partnerships between First Nations and the private sector and to support economic development for our people.
In addition, we want a process that looks beyond the fiscal stimulus to deal with structural changes that will create a more effective and efficient way of addressing our issues during these times of economic volatility. Our people know all too well about economic tough times; after all, our communities have been in a recession for years now. We also know that when tough fiscal decisions have to be made, those who are most vulnerable often fare even worse.
Given the level of poverty among First Nations, our economies and communities are at an alarmingly high risk of sinking further into the bleakness and despair of poverty. We, as a society, must not let this happen.
Of course, we must also plan for the post-stimulus period. Our plan builds on the Kelowna Accord, an agreement beneficial for all of Canada, to forge a new path forward. We need political will and goodwill to forge ahead on this new path.
Contrary to what has been said, the Kelowna Accord was not a press release; it was not a pre-election publicity stunt. The Kelowna Accord was, indeed, a plan of action. It was agreed to by all five national indigenous leaders — all First Nations — and the Prime Minister, and had the backing of Canadians who were represented by their governments. However, while the 2009 Budget included some positive measures for First Nations, it needed to do more to strengthen First Nation economies, which in turn benefit all Canadians. This is not to suggest, by the way, that we are ungrateful. We are grateful for the commitments of $1.4 billion for First Nations issues. My point is not to suggest that we are dismissive of the efforts of the government to respond to our needs. My point is simply that we can do better.
For example, when I make the point that we have achieved incredible progress in terms of education in the last 50 years — where we have increased the number of First Nation students in universities and colleges from 10 in 1952 to approximately 30,000 today — it is an incredible achievement in itself. However, because of the gap that exists between our incredibly diverse First Nations community and the rest of the country, the number should be 90,000. It should be 90,000, and not 30,000. Can you imagine what 90,000 First Nations students in universities and colleges would mean for the country? It would be of enormous benefit for Canada. It would strengthen this already beautiful country. That is my point.
The infrastructure investments to First Nations by this government were definitely welcomed, as I just pointed out, and necessary, as are the investments in health and child and family services. Now, we must ensure that these important stimulus dollars roll out so they reach First Nation communities as they are needed.
We were, however, disappointed that there was no response to our call for investments in education and a repayable loan fund. Investments in education would get more of our people working and would certainly help eliminate poverty.
As well, our government should have access to credit to spark economies and to develop partnerships with the private sector. In addition, this month, in response to Canada's Universal Periodic Review of human rights by the UN Human Rights Council, the Government of Canada rejected to commit to concrete poverty reduction strategies and programmatic action to close the quality- of-life gaps that currently exist between Aboriginal and non- Aboriginal Canadians. The government refused to commit while 109 out of 633 First Nation communities remain under drinking water or boil water advisories, with another 40 communities with high-risk water systems. Our government is not acting fast enough to ensure all First Nations have access to safe drinking water.
The promise of rights does not mean much when our First Nations people live in dire poverty. Many of our people live in conditions much like those of the developing world and yet Canada is considered an advanced industrialized nation.
How can the potential of all Canadians be realized when the dreams of First Nations children are not allowed to flourish, amidst devastating poverty; when our children are not given the same fair chance at succeeding right from the start; and when First Nation students receive an average of $2,000 less per student than non-Aboriginal students? In fact, in some school divisions, the disparity gap is as high as $9,000 per student.
How can the potential of all Canadians be realized when poverty steals them of their childhood, their hopes and fair future; when 27,000 of our children are in state care — more than three times the number of children attending residential schools at the height of the residential school experience; when so many of our communities do not have running water or safe drinking water; when many of our homes are unsafe, overcrowded, drafty and mouldy; when overcrowding, a lack of running water, poor housing, poor health care and poor living conditions exacerbate the spread of illnesses such as swine flu?
We have all been reading about the terrible situation in the northeastern part of my province. It is a scary thought and we would argue that what we are all witnessing in that part of the country is a direct consequence of poverty. We need to move urgently to deal with this issue; otherwise, it will become something that we will be unable to address or arrest in any significant positive way.
When the government argues that the H1N1 pandemic knows no race, we know it affects our communities more than any other in Canada. Many of us die of cancer, get diabetes, tuberculosis, depression and are obese — far above the national average. Some, including children, see suicide, alcohol and drug use as their only escape from the powerlessness of poverty.
In addition, even though the government has invested in First Nations housing on reserves, for which we are very grateful, the Canadian housing program does not sufficiently address need. Currently, there are 87,000 units. This is the backlog in new housing stock required across all First Nation communities, which falls vastly short of the 2,300 units built each year by our governments with support from the federal government. At this rate, it will take us 35 years to reach the need at 2009 levels.
The government's housing strategy fails to meet social housing needs for our people, especially the elderly, the disabled or single- parent families headed by women. This further exacerbates the effects of poverty and overcrowding among this group. The Government of Canada continues to practise discriminatory and punitive funding with regard to First Nations citizens.
You may think this is a contradiction when I made the point about how grateful we are for the additional resources of $1.9 billion in the stimulus budget. However, we, in fact, have had to struggle with a 2 per cent cap on core programs and services — housing, education and health — since 1996. That is 13 years now, and there does not seem to be any hope, at least in the next short while, that this cap will be lifted.
That means that our governments are unable to keep up with the cost of living increases, as well as population growth. As you know, our population growth is the fastest in Canada. It is three times the national average. Therefore, our governments are being forced to do more with less, year after year. This is a huge challenge, not only for First Nations, but the country.
All of this results in predictably negative social determinants of health and well-being, and a lower quality of life for First Nations. Economic and social rights are also human rights. On this score, Canada continues to actively discriminate against First Nations through its funding practices.
Post-secondary education is considered a treaty right by our people; yet, the post-secondary education program for First Nations has had a fiscal cap, as I just mentioned, to the growth of the program since 1996-97. The consequence is that fewer First Nations youth are being supported by this program each year. In fact, there is a waiting list of approximately 15,000 eligible First Nations students who are unable to access universities and colleges because of this lack of appropriate education funding. While Canada continues to say that it is acting to make higher education accessible for First Nations, this claim is not supported.
Canada's commitment to improve health care and the general welfare of indigenous people requires Canada to implement Jordan's Principle. Jordan's Principle is a ``child first'' principle to resolving jurisdictional issues and disputes within and between federal, provincial and territorial governments. We also call on the government to eliminate discriminatory funding for First Nations child and family services, compared to the funding provided to responsible provincial and territorial authorities for non-First Nation or off-reserve First Nation children in provincial and territorial care.
If this partnership between all founding partners of the federation is to be meaningful, mutual responsibility and accountability must also define the relationship. This means, among other things, that the shackles of the Indian Act — a statute born out of intolerance, imposition, paternalism and assimilationist ideas — must be repealed once and for all.
We should avoid a piecemeal approach. We should avoid tinkering with the Indian Act. This is a racist, archaic piece of federal legislation that needs to be repealed now and replaced with a new nation-to-nation, government-to-government relationship in which our respective authorities are respected, and for which we both share accountability and responsibility for decisions over our peoples. This is part of what reconciliation means.
To be sure, to state of First Nations' rights and realities is a sober one, and there are significant barriers to reconciliation and transformative change. The agenda for substantive changes and outcomes is a full one. However, it is one I firmly believe can be met.
Canada is a tolerant society, and Canadians are generous, caring and believe heartily in the respect for human rights, equality and true opportunity. Political goodwill, forward- mindedness, determination and respect for what a reconciled relationship ought to mean in practice can see significant improvements in outcomes and in the relationship of First Nations and Canada.
On this one-year anniversary of the apology, now more than ever we are, as a country, faced with choices that will shape what Canada is today and what it will become tomorrow.
The process used to craft Bill C-30, the Specific Claims Tribunal Act, which was passed last June, was a fruitful basis upon which to build greater dialogue, demonstrate mutual respect and advance the relationship between First Nations and the government.
Reconciliation then implies a solemn duty to act, a responsibility to engage, and an obligation to fulfill the promises inherent in an advanced democratic and ethical citizenship. That is, the Government of Canada — in fact, all members of Parliament, in both houses — has a responsibility with the involvement, consultation and engagement of First Nations to bridge the past to a future in which the gap in the quality of life and well-being between non-Aboriginal and Aboriginal people vanishes, where First Nations' poverty is eradicated, where our children have the same opportunities and life chances as other children, and the promises of our treaties are fulfilled.
Reconciliation must mean real change for all of our people in all the places we choose to live, change that addresses the wrongs in a way that brings all of us closer together. Human rights, hope, opportunity and human flourishing are not the privilege of one group or one segment of Canadian society; they belong to all of us.
Achieving an apology is not an end point. We can look back at the hard work necessary to get to a place where the government apologized to residential school survivors. The time to experience reconciliation as a country is upon us. The power of exposing the truth of the residential school experience, ushered in by the apology, frees us from our intolerant past to become a true democracy that encompasses all the virtues that reconciliation entails.
The achievement of an inclusive, cohesive and fair society is a project which we, as a country, cannot afford to abandon. It is a project that we all must wholeheartedly embrace.
Thank you. Meegwetch. Merci beaucoup.