The Thunder Bay Chronicle-Journal is the daily newspaper of Northwestern Ontario.
WITH so much riding on Friday’s meeting between the leaders of two of Canada’s “nations,” there is a danger that the drama of Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence could detract from it. Spence is so the wrong person to be seen to be speaking for First Nations in general and the Idle No More movement in particular. Her hunger strike in a teepee — interspersed with a visit to a nearby hotel and some slumber time in a car — has been marked by shifting demands and her disingenuous response to the leaked audit of her impoverished band’s finances.
A chief who drives an Escalade while most about her scramble for basic shelter; who calls the absence of basic accounting for $100 million in public funds, largely intended for housing, a ruse to discredit her; and who questions the skills of a major financial institution for revealing the breathtaking irregularities of her own band management, does not deserve to be given credence at this crucial juncture in the life of Canada.
Who, then, does speak for First Nations in Friday’s meeting with Prime Minister Stephen Harper and several of his ministers? Some First Nations leaders say that Shawn Atleo’s Assembly of First Nations, which convened this important meeting, does not speak for them. There are 617 First Nations in Canada, most of which are part of regional organizations like Nishnawbe Aski Nation here in the Northwest. First Nations and their umbrella groups all have chiefs. Hopefully, the select few chiefs present Friday are representative of most if not all of the more than 700,000 First Nations people.
The other key issue to be addressed Friday — and overcome soon — is First Nations governance, on reserves and by Canada. For all her shortcomings, Chief Spence is a victim of the system overseen by Aboriginal Affairs and the paternalistic Indian Act. Rewriting this legislation in order to genuinely accommodate grievances and facilitate responsible self-government will be the best outcome of the process that begins tomorrow. The Aboriginal Affairs budget is enormous.
But handing more money to First Nations does not bring anything close to commensurate results. It merely prolongs a sense of dependence that drowns self-determination and, in cases like Attawapiskat, entrenches dysfunction which may be widespread.
Against those challenges, Harper, Atleo and the others will try to create a respectful dialogue and build trust that underpins a process that might look like the one described here today by Garnet Angeconeb. One of the newest members of the Order of Canada sees a process in which titles are left at the door and a group of determined men and women sit in a circle to share good ideas to get First Nations set on a path, not to special status but to equal status.
We hope for a country in which Aboriginal people are no longer seen as, or feel like, wards of the state. Instead, our indigenous peoples forge a future that relishes their rich cultures while building political functions to actively share in the prosperity that flows from the country’s resources. A “duty to consult” on land use will be replaced with a conversation that comes naturally, among friends.
Harper is a take-charge guy on key issues. He has seen the moment to be seized here as quite possibly the best opportunity ever to finally break all of Canada’s people free of the discouragement that is the relationship around its First Peoples. Atleo, too, can make his name and his stand here, and show himself to be the aboriginal leader who can do what others could not. All of Canada must sincerely wish the best on the participants in this meeting Friday. They control Canada’s destiny as a land of harmony or one that continues to spiral into despair. That must not be our future.