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Native People in Canada FIFTH OF SIX

Phil Fontaine, the grand chief of the Assembly of First Nations (AFN), fired a broadside over the ship of state of Canada when he stated that there might be trouble with the First Nations tribes in Vancouver-Whistler. This happened after acknowledging that the AFN had signed a memorandum of understanding offering the help of the natives to ensure that the Olympics were successful in 2010. Self-interest is a trait common to all peoples and after the public fiasco related to the Tibetans in China, it would be out of character for an interest group like the First Nations not to take advantage of the vulnerability to pressure felt by the Canadian and provincial governments.

Phil Fontaine may have spoken prematurely when he offered to help. How much control does he really have? The AFN is an organization of chiefs of six hundred bands and each band chief is in control locally. The natives in Vancouver, while only 2% of the population, represent 30% of the homeless. The B.C. government is cutting social services, health care and education, while spending billions to construct Olympic sites. Since 2000 the primary native struggle in the B.C. interior has been against construction of mountain ski resorts. Most mountains are claimed by Canada as crown land but the bands in B.C. feel that the land was unceded, non-surrendered, indigenous land owned by the 48 First Nations. Chief Arthur Manuel, chairman of the Secwepemc Nation, has been to Europe lobbying the European Union parliamentarians to get support for their positions. They claim that the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver is a threat to the native way of life. Canada is preparing a massive security operation employing 12,500 police, military and security personnel. The federal government points to the 1876 Indian Act that gave them control over the aboriginals and their lands.

The problems facing both federal and provincial jurisdictions are the products of long-standing neglect in addressing the issues. Canadian politicians like most politicians in
Western democracies, do as little as possible in the short term, so as not to hinder their chances of reelection. If the native peoples had been involved in the negotiations years before, a different deal could probably have evolved. Today conditions are different.

The Canadian public is very sympathetic to the plight of the native peoples living on the reservations with poor housing, polluted water, and inferior education facilities. When they find out the present demands of the native people this support may well diminish.

So what are the problems now? It concerns land claims, living conditions on the reservations and residential schools.

On June 11, 2008, Stephen Harper the prime minister of Canada rose in the house of commons to apologize to the Canadian aboriginal people for the residential schools that commenced operations in the 1870`s. The 2 primary objectives of the residential schools were to remove and isolate the children from the influences of their homes, traditions and cultures and to assimilate them into the dominant culture. The assumption was that the native culture was inferior. Michael Ignatieff, deputy leader of the Liberal party, wrote
“the residential school system was without question the most dismaying betrayal of Canada’s first peoples in our history”. It was a blatant attempt to kill the First Nations culture by taking the children away from their parents. The settlement after a law suit, initiated by the students who attended the school, cost the government two billion dollars in payouts to the former students plus sixty million dollars for a Truth and Reconciliation
Commission
.This committee led by an aboriginal judge will travel throughout the country and allow the victims, perpetrators and the community to hear the truth and hopefully the process will lead to acknowledgement, healing, public awareness and forgiveness. From 1969 all the residential schools were closed and as time passes and the students involved cease to exist, the issue will hopefully disappear.

Land ownership and its use is the elephant in the china shop. All aboriginal land and property is under the control of the federal government. If an individual native living on a reserve wants to make a change in his house, permission is required from the chief and council, no different from the rest of Canada, but then it has to go to the department of Indian affairs or a civil servant acting for the department, a long cumbersome process with many frustrations along the way. But that is only part of the problem. For how long is the Canadian public expected to fund a system that has very little expectation of being self-sustaining? It is impossible to live by hunting and fishing and most of the land is not suitable for agriculture. The living conditions now on many reserves are deplorable. Is it the long term plan of the AFN to just continue, as is,only to create better living conditions? There is some light at the end of the tunnel . Some of the land claimed by the First Nations has valuable resources on it and this will bring in millions of dollars for the native people to use. There is no question that the Canadian people want the members of the first nations to benefit from the country, as they do, but only if it does not impinge on their personal lives often and with major repercussions You may rest assured that the non-native people surrounding Caledon will give minor support for the actions take by the native bands. What must be resolved is the extent of the land claimed by the first nations and what rights Canada and the first nations have to that land and its resources.

Another complicated issue is the relationship between the individual Canadian first native and his band. Is an aboriginal a Canadian similar to other Canadians or different? Is the Canadian government to deal permanently with all natives through their band as a collective? Are band leaders subject to Canadian laws? They will in the future have to oversee millions of dollars in assets.

Decisions must be made. Actions must be taken and seen to be taken. It will take time but it is crucial for all the first nation tribes and Canada to move progressively ahead for the benefit of the Canadian and the native peoples.

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Name: Murray Rubin

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