Wednesday, January 25, 2012
History in the Making
Yesterday, Shawn Atleo, First Nations activist and current national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, whose brother is a dear friend of mine from Tofino days, met with Prime Minister Stephen Harper, with all due ceremony, at the Crown-First Nations Gathering in Ottawa.
Shawn Atleo is proposing the immediate need to smash the status quo between First Nations and the government, which still operates according to the ancient paternalistic Indian Act , when it comes to governing First Nations.
Shawn pointed to some bands who are managing their own affairs and doing well, stating there are 65 bands ready to govern their own affairs. The wish to self-govern comes on the heels of last month's declaration of a state of emergency by the Attawapiskat reserve, whose members are living in unheated shacks in 40 below weather, without water or toilet facilities - Third World conditions for the northern people of Canada.
At the time this news broke, the predictable response was finger-pointing by government, at perceived "mismanagement of funds" by the Band.
Yesterday, Harper responded to the Chief's plea for a transformation in the relationship between government and First Nations, with the usual words of "respect" and "working together". But he said he would not disband the antique Indian Act, which has kept First Nations people disempowered, "because it would leave a hole". It all sounded like a lot of the usual - words, instead of change, and nothing happens.
Argh. However, Shawn Atleo is a courageous and committed leader of his people. His message - and the reality - is that it is long past time for change for his people. Under the present system, far too large a percentage of First Nations are impoverished and feeling hopeless. They want the same access to resources, employment and self-determination the rest of Canada enjoys.
What I heard yesterday from Harper was same old/same old. But I place my hope in Shawn Atleo. He'll get the job done.