The condition and treatment of Canada’s Aboriginal people is the shame of our generation. The statistics speak for themselves. One in four First Nations children live in poverty; twenty-five per cent of Aboriginal people live in seriously substandard housing; overcrowding among First Nations families is double the rate of that for all Canadian families; more than 100 First Nations communities are under continuous boil water advisories and have almost no access to clean water for drinking and sanitation; First Nations people still suffer from Third World diseases such as tuberculosis; more than half of First Nations people are not employed; one Aboriginal child in eight is disabled; high school graduation rates for First Nations youth are half the Canadian rate; First Nations youth commit suicide at five to eight times the Canadian rate. More than half of First Nations and Inuit people are under 25 years of age. The statistics are staggering. And yet, Canadians for the most part ignore this reality. To his credit, the Prime Minister apologized for the residential schools issue and that went a small way to healing the wounds of generations of Aboriginal people. However, real change means tackling head on the disastrous Third World living conditions Aboriginal people face each day. This past winter, I learned of the plight of the Ochapowace Nation in Saskatchewan. The Ochapowace have been held in what is called “third party” financial status for ten years by the Department of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development (Formerly Indian and Northern Affairs – INAC) because they refused to turn over financial information about small mom and pop type businesses in their community to federal officials. They maintained it was an illegal and improper request and outside of any federal jurisdiction. Several legal experts agreed. In response, the department cut off funding and turned over management of all funds to a non-Aboriginal management company which was paid handsomely to run the financial affairs of the Ochapowace. They were treated like children. As a result of this “third party status”, the Ochapowace were disqualified from applying for any federal housing money and lost 4 million dollars for housing over a ten-year period. The Ochapowace live in poverty directly caused by INAC. I witnessed it on a recent visit. It is a wonderful community comprised of resolute and proud people with strong traditions who have been decimated by stupidity. In twenty-five years of working with Aboriginal communities I have seen INAC put various Aboriginal groups in “catch 22” positions but this beggars belief. In conjunction with Aboriginal organizations, INAC is tasked with working to improve the social well-being and economic prosperity of Aboriginal peoples; developing healthier, more sustainable communities; and encouraging Aboriginal people to participate more fully in Canada’s political, social and economic milieu – to the benefit of all Canadians. By that standard this department is a complete failure. The Ochapowace requested a meeting or an intervention by Minister John Duncan this past winter, but were advised by officials that he was too busy. The Deputy Minister Michael Wernick did not have the courtesy to respond to their registered letters. When we called the Department to find out why he had not responded to such a dire situation we were told he had not received the letters. So we sent copies to them ourselves and they still did not contact the Ochapowace. We called back to inquire once more and were told the Ochapowace were being taken out of third party status. We called the Ochapowace and they had not yet been advised. A week later they were informed by the Department. Even amongst others in the public service, this ministry has a bad reputation. It is obvious Mr. Wernick is not capable of identifying priorities or even having a credible process to respond directly to Aboriginal leaders. He is after all working for them– right? The best thing Ottawa can do for Canada’s Aboriginal community is shut down this redundant and patronizing department and provide all funding directly to credible Aboriginal organizations and let them run their own affairs. Contrary to the bigots who think our Aboriginal neighbours can’t run their own affairs, I would put money down they will manage far better and Canada will be better off for it. All it will take is for Prime Minister Harper to take a leap of faith. Your move Mr. Harper.
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