Enough already! Canada's aboriginal peoples are pressing candidates on issues like clean drinking water, improved education and generally deplorable conditions on reserves.

Canada’s Aboriginal Leaders Making Their Issues Heard

Gale Courey Toensing
4/20/11

First Nations, Métis and Inuit are going all-out during this campaign season to bring attention to their important issues and change the way the Canadian government addresses them.

The Assembly of First Nations (AFN) launched First Nations Count, a web-based initiative to get the word out to the indigenous and wider Canadian communities about their priorities and how Canada’s political parties respond. The Métis National Council (MNC) and the Inuit advocacy organization Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK) have also rolled out Web initiatives and been working to bring aboriginal issues to the fore.

“This is based on the broad theme of the need for us to be working together to build success for the future and that, of course, is very much anchored in the treaties and the nation-to-nation relationships,” AFN National Chief Shawn A-in-chut Atleo said in an April 14 call with reporters. The four First Nations Count priorities, derived from resolutions by the chiefs, spell out how the nations will address the issues regardless of who wins, Atleo said. They are:

Affirmation: Recognizing rights and responsibilities and enabling First Nation governments to move beyond the Indian Act, implementing treaties and agreements and settling claims.

Education: Investing and enabling a sustainable, equitable First Nation education system supportive of aboriginal language and culture.

Partnership: Unlocking the economic potential of First Nations, supporting First Nation economies and new energy opportunities and affirming environmental responsibility.

Safety and Community Health: Addressing critical foundations of community health and safety, including housing, drinking water, emergency response, justice, and intervention to affirm and protect the vital role of women and children.

Five parties are vying in this election, the fourth in seven years, which was called after a no-confidence vote toppled Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government on March 25.

The AFN posed a series of questions to each party—Conservatives and Liberals (roughly equivalent to the United States’ Republicans and Democrats), the New Democratic Party (the social democrats), the Bloc Quebecois (Quebec separatists), and the Green Party (for global environmental–social justice)—and created a chart summarizing their positions.

Canada’s other two main aboriginal groups are also holding candidates accountable. National Inuit leader Mary Simon, ITK president, sent 11 questions to the five political parties with an April 20 deadline for responses that will be posted on ITK's website.

“These questions address the priorities of Inuit—from housing to education to climate change,” she said in a statement. “We hope the parties’ answers will help Inuit make informed decisions in this election and understand how their issues fit into the platforms of Canada’s major political parties.”

Likewise, MNC President Clément Chartier sent 10 questions to the parties probing their positions on Métis issues. As of April 10, all except the Conservatives had answered. The letters and re­sponses are posted on MNC's site.

Whatever the issue, “our people are always so much more vulnerable, whether it’s emergencies like flooding, or critical challenges like child welfare, housing, safe drinking water, basic health support and community justice,” Atleo said. “And the basic foundation of this is our struggle with inadequate funding.”

Conservatives and Liberals alike have promised to protect 6.6 percent funding increases to the provinces for areas such as health and education, but First Nations’ funding has been capped at two percent since 1996, Atleo said. Equal funding increases are at the very least a starting point for pressing indigenous priorities, he said.

Atleo stressed that First Nations Count is meant to raise awareness, not advocate for or against voting. “The issue of voting is something left up to not only First Nations, but [also] their citizens.”

No single party adequately addresses all First Nation issues, Atleo said.

“Even if we took all of them together, it still falls very short of where we need to go with the four priorities,” he said. “Is there a government prepared to step forward and engage in a discussion about implementing the spirit and intent of the treaties? We have yet to see that. Is there a government prepared to ensure our treaty rights to K-12 and post-secondary education that supports our language and culture? Or economic development, clean drinking water, housing? We need to encourage governments to uphold their obligations.”

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