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Respecting Aboriginal Peoples in Canada: They Were Here First

When the Speech from the Throne promised 'concrete action' on Aboriginal issues, I thought the proof would be in pudding -- the 2011 budget. But no, the government had totally abdicated their responsibility for our Aboriginal peoples.

Last week, Bob Rae named me the Liberal Party 'critic' for Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development. I have always preferred the title in French, 'porte-parole' -- the word for 'spokesperson' instead of 'critic.'

I thought being the spokesperson for the party and stakeholders was more positive. I had always thought that the job of Opposition members is to occasionally admit when the government of the day is caught doing something right!

So as the new critic/porte-parole/spokesperson for Aboriginal Affairs, my job was to scrutinize the Speech from the Throne last Friday like a Talmudic scholar. Every line relating to my portfolio was highlighted and analyzed. There were three important sentences:

"Canada's Aboriginal peoples are central to Canada's history, and our Government has made it a priority to renew and deepen our relationship. The contribution of Canada's Aboriginal peoples will be important to our future prosperity. Concerted action is needed to address the barriers to social and economic participation that many Aboriginal Canadians face."

"Our Aboriginal Canadians have some of the worst outcomes in health, education, economic status and environmental conditions. After delay after delay, the Conservative Government finally endorsed the U.N. Declaration on Indigenous Peoples... but there had not been even an assessment of what our Aboriginal peoples believe is necessary for the full implementation of the commitment, let alone a strategy, the costing and the necessary investments."

"So we hoped to see commitments in the budget on housing, on education, on provision of safe drinking water... meaningful commitments that would help solve the significant problems facing Aboriginal Canadians."

Although we didn't see evidence of 'concerted action' in the Speech from the Throne the proof would be in pudding in the 2011 budget. Would we see a plan for 'concerted action?' What would be the investments?

On Monday afternoon, the answer was clear. The government had totally abdicated their responsibility to our Aboriginal peoples. It was also clear that 'critic' was to be the more appropriate title for my role.

Instead of investments, what we saw was a chart with a history lesson on previous investments as part of the Economic Action Plan (p. 135 of the budget)... and an outright refusal to admit that this budget means no further investments on these key issues, like housing.

But even more insulting was their response to the overwhelming need for investments in education -- the re-announcement of a commitment to a meeting:

"Building upon a Budget 2010 commitment, the Government, in collaboration with the Assembly of First Nations, has announced that a Panel of Experts will lead an engagement process to develop options for concrete and positive changes in First Nations education to bring greater success and opportunities for First Nations students."

The National Chief Shawn A-in-chut Atleo has been very clear that education is thepriority of the Assembly of First Nations.

Surely the government's commitment 'to renew and deepen our relationship' with Aboriginal peoples should be firstly to recognize the mandate of the National Chief in a government to government relationship. If the National Chief is asking for 'equitable, stable and sustainable funding' on education, then the government has an obligation to listen and then put the resources in place to make it happen.

Our Aboriginal people lag terribly behind in completing high school -- according to the 2006 census, 34 per cent of the Aboriginal population aged 25 to 64 do not have a high school diploma, compared to 15 per cent for the non-Aboriginal population, while only 8 per cent of Aboriginals have a university degree compared to 23 per cent of non-Aboriginals.

When it comes to housing, I am concerned that the government has cut its financial support for On-reserve housing through the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation by $127 million. In the budget, the Conservative government also unilaterally decided to invest $22 million in replacing fuel tanks and only $8 million to promote the deployment of clean energy technologies.

In 2004, then-Prime Minister Paul Martin and his cabinet put in place a process that allowed our Aboriginal peoples to choose their priorities and design the blueprint. They chose five areas: education, health, housing, economic development and accountability. The federal government, provinces and territories and the Aboriginal leaders worked together for 18 months to achieve a real plan that became the $5 billion Kelowna Accord.

In 2006, Stephen Harper's government cancelled the Kelowna Accord. The money had been booked, the path forward had been agreed upon. The Conservative government demonstrated a total contempt for the process, the plan and most importantly the gravity of the situation. They decided to use the money for other things. Despite this, the need has only increased. In my riding, so often I am asked what we are doing about this appalling situation.

Every year we put on a day on 'Women in Politics' for the young women in the riding. We have three panels -- politicians, activists and media. One year we invited Bev Jacobs, the President of the Native Women's Association to be on the activist panel. In the Question-and-Answer period, all the questions were directed to her. She gave the history of the Indian Act put also she had a prescription. She believed that age-appropriate Aboriginal studies needed to be part of the curriculum of all Canadians students.

Last year, when I was at the 'Women Deliver' conference in Washington. I met some Kiwi midwives. I asked them why Maori history, art, culture are part of the identity of every New Zealander. They answered that there was age-appropriate Maori education from Kindergarten to grade eight... and then optional in high-school. New Zealand has transformed their First Peoples from victims to leaders. Canada must do the same.

As Minister of State for Public Health, I had an amazing opportunity to learn from our Aboriginal peoples. The Indigenous Physicians Association welcomed me warmly. They taught me that the holistic approach of the Medicine Wheel was far superior to our medical model -- the tyranny of the acute.

We would never be able to keep Canadians healthy without addressing the social determinants of health -- poverty, violence, the environment, shelter, equity, education. Bill Mussel taught me that without a secure personal and cultural identity, self-esteem, resilience, people make bad choices that risk their health. In particular the horrible consequences that colonization has brought to our Aboriginal peoples.

I know that listening is key to 'deepening our relationship.' Bob Rae has already set an amazing example. Our country will only ever be as strong as our most vulnerable people. We need our Aboriginal peoples to be able to lead again... as they did when they helped the European pioneers survive their first winters. I am so grateful that Bob Rae has entrusted me with this portfolio. I look forward to sharing everything I learn in this space.


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