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Joseph Boyden On Harper, First Nations, The Election, And Canadian Racism

"This is not a First Nations problem. I think that some politicians like to say it's their problem not ours, but this a Canadian problem."

The irony of this federal election campaign is that no matter who is elected on Oct. 19, many of the most pressing issues — energy, housing, health care — ultimately fall under provincial jurisdiction. There’s really only so much that the next government can do on its own.

Except for aboriginal issues, that is.

First Nations, Inuit, and Metis concerns all fall under federal jurisdiction, and yet those have been a minor part of the campaign. While Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau and NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair have promised an inquest into the more than 1,200 missing and murdered indigenous women in Canada, Conservative Leader Stephen Harper has dismissed such calls, even claiming that "most of these murders, sad as they are, are in fact solved."

Canada is one of the most advanced nations in the world and yet most aboriginal reservations don't have clean drinking water. Many don't have fire departments. Housing is substandard, and schools are worse. Inuit suicide rates are 40 times the national average. First Nations children make up about half of the foster care system — despite aboriginals being only four per cent of the population.

Huffington Post Canada sat down with Giller Prize-winning author and aboriginal activist Joseph Boyden backstage at We Day where he spoke to thousands of students in Toronto. (This week, he endorsed Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau for prime minister.)

We discussed these ongoing crises, how the next government can address them, and if Canada is a racist country.

Why have indigenous issues played such a minor role in the election campaign?

The environment, energy, housing, it's all inter-related. These are not separate issues. First Nations, it covers everything in Canada, both the negatives and the positives, but it's something that obviously Harper doesn't want to speak about. He doesn't want to deal with First Nations since the apology [in 2008], which a lot of us believe was lip service without follow-through. It's obvious he doesn't want to.

First Nations, Inuit and Métis people, I think, are close to two million now in this country and that's a lot. It's a very powerful population [but] too often it's a second-class population. The fastest growing population group is aboriginal youth in our country. Do we leave them as second-class citizens or bring them in as a part of solutions in the future?

No one's talking about this and I'm not sure why. I think that people close their eyes sometimes, the average person, when they hear about First Nation issues in this country.

I interviewed Paul Martin a few years ago...

And he's a huge supporter of First Nations issues.

He spent his very brief reign as prime minister working on the 2005 Kelowna Accord, which Harper killed. Is that something that would still make sense for the next government to bring back?

If it's a new government in power. Because I know Harper will not do it. Whether it's New Democrat or Liberal or by chance a coalition, first thing I would do is bring back the Kelowna Accord so First Nations can get on that level playing field that the rest of Canadians have.

Can you explain what it is?

The Kelowna Accord was years in the making. It was revolutionary in that it was not just government funding towards First Nations; it was programs that First Nations created themselves.

A big part of it was education, and I think the biggest struggle that First Nations youth are facing is education. Maybe not even half First Nations youth are graduating high school in this country. So something is clearly broken. And it's not the youth, it's the system. The Kelowna Accord directly addressed that with education.

How is it possible that Third World conditions exist here in the "first world?"

I was teaching in the '90s up in James Bay, the Ontario side, in places like Kashechewan, Attawapiskat, Fort Albany, Peawanuck way up north, Moose Factory, and for the first time saw the poverty, the lack of running water, clean drinking water. I saw the cardboard shacks, basically, people had to live in.

I was amazed, I was shocked. And I go back now and things have gotten a little bit better, but not nearly what they should be in 20 years. This is not a First Nations problem. I think that some politicians like to say it's their problem not ours, but this is a Canadian problem.

Let's talk about the issue of missing and murdered indigenous women, which you call a "national tragedy."

Why is this not an election issue? What the focus of this election has become in so many ways is terror and this idea of fear. I've lived in the States for 21 years and watched this over and over again, the fear-mongering. Harper saying terrorism is the biggest threat to our country? How many people have been killed domestically because of terrorism in this country? Is it one? How many missing and murdered indigenous women and girls in this country? I've heard the number 1,800. Officially, it’s 1,200, but it's much closer to 2,000.

What is going on with this imbalance and why are we not addressing what is a national crime? This is one of the greatest stains of our country. If you're an aboriginal woman, you're four times more likely to die violently than any other group in this country. Why are we not addressing this issue?

And we just heard that Inuit suicide rates that are 40 times higher than the national average. What can the federal government be doing to address that?

What happens — and I've watched it happen in communities I'm very close to — is that these waves of suicides begin happening. One kid does it, others begin doing it. Within a month, sometimes in communities of 1,000 people, 20 kids have taken their lives. When we hear this happening, as soon as it happens, you send in crisis teams just like you would in a war zone. That’s only short-term. The long-term solution is education.

Aboriginal children also make up a disproportionate percentage of foster care kids. Often, because the housing is sub-standard on reserves, the kids are then taken away and brought into white homes in the city.

This has been going on for a long time, by the way. The Sixties Scoop is a great example of that, where children, if you were a social worker, you could walk on to any reserve you wanted and take whatever child you wanted.

My friend Richard Wagamese, a great Ojibwe novelist, is a victim of that. And I say victim because he was taken from his community, ripped from his family, put into service basically as a slave on farms to different foster parents. I know a lot of people whose children have been taken away forcefully from them without, I believe, due process or the need to that.

There are situations where there's drug and alcohol abuse.

Yeah, absolutely. Not saying it's a perfect situation. Often times a child needs to be taken out of that place — maybe not off the reservation, but out of that particular home. I say it has to be a nation-to-nation issue. The treaties state it specifically, we are not wards of the state. We are a nation that needs to deal with Canada as another nation.

What is a possible solution to it?

Going in and looking at what the root cause is of the issues that might be happening in a family or a community. These are clearly often times dysfunctional situations, highly dysfunctional, and why? It's not because native people are dysfunctional people, it's because of the residential school system.

I say that and people just kinda roll their eyes, but keep in mind the last residential school closed its doors in 1996. Seven generations of First Nations and Métis children were forcibly taken from their families, ripped from their families, and forced into cold, often very abusive institutions. It's going to take generations for that healing to begin.

I talked to someone from a band up in northern Manitoba and what they’re trying to do is they're removing the parents from the house.

Love it. That's great. See that's forward thinking to me. What's the real problem? It's not the child, it's the parent. It's kind a tough love thing but for adults. And allow yourself to, like why am I drinking? Why am I not raising my child properly?

First Nations have to take control of our own and we have to admit that, yes, there are issues and problems and we have to deal with them.

Again, it’s not them versus us. All of Canada should be concerned about our children. Our children, not theirs.

Our children.

2015 Canada, is it a racist country?

Absolutely. Yeah, of course we are. Let's put it this way, if you believe Canada is a post-racial society, you're probably white and you're probably male. Racism is alive and well, but we’re a much more polite racist than Americans. I live in New Orleans, I know what racism is all about, I've watched it for 20 years. It's direct, it's ugly, it's bitter, it's angry.

And what is under anger? Fear.

North America, within 20 or 30 years, the white population is going to become a minority, and I think people know that. I think that's where the Tea Party came from. This fear that the future is coming and we're not going to be able to control it anymore. It's fear and Canada is a fearful country. We need to address it. Why don't we have a national inquiry on missing and murdered women right now? It's a form of racism.

Did you know native people weren't allowed to vote in Canada until the 1960s? Canadians don't know this and we need to know our history in order to move forward properly. We need to educate young people across Canada, not just on reserves, about our real history. And some of it's not good, some of it's really ugly.

But we have to look at that, right in the face if we're going to move forward and be successful.

How long do you think it's going to take for Canada to reach that level playing field that you're talking about?

I've heard that elders say it took seven generations to try and break us, it's going to take seven generations to heal us. And that's a long time.

You'll never meet more patient people than your average First Nations person, or Inuit person, or Métis person. These are people who are patient and will say, "Yep, it'll be a hundred years, but we'll wait. We're not going anywhere."

I'm watching the sea change happen now, from ignorance to understanding, and I'm very much an optimist.

Joshua Ostroff is a senior editor for HuffPost Canada.

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