• By: OLM Staff

First Nations Come Last

On May 27, her last day after a decade as Canada’s official watchdog, Auditor General Sheila Fraser gave this dire warning.: “If the First Nations and the Federal Government don’t find ways of working together, the living conditions in reserves will remain worse off than everywhere else in Canada, and this will prevail for generations to come.”

Sheila Fraser’s plain talk confirms what First Nations leaders have always known. The system doesn’t work. From the time of the Constitution to the Indian Act and the Department of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development that administers it, Aboriginal Canadians have had a raw deal. Fraser should know – her office produced 31 audit reports on Aboriginal issues from water quality to overcrowding. All of them repeat the same message: Aboriginals live in developing world conditions in a developed country. If the United Nations Human Development Index was applied to Aboriginal Canada, it would rank 73rd (currently occupied by impoverished Dominica) out of 174 nations. Overall, Canada rates 3rd.

Meanwhile, the Department of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development says it is working for “a future in which First Nations, Inuit, Métis and northern communities are healthy, safe, self-sufficient and prosperous — a Canada where people make their own decisions, manage their own affairs and make strong contributions to the country as a whole.”

It’s a vision that is fading fast. Life for on-reserve Aboriginals is worsening. In 2006, Statistics Canada reported 44 per cent of First Nations people on reserves lived in a home in need of major repairs, up from 36 per cent a decade earlier in 1996. For the Inuit, in 2006, it was 31 per cent, up from 19 per cent in 1996. Poor housing, the report added “can lead to the transmission of infectious diseases, and can add to the risk of injuries, mental health problems, tensions within the family, and violence.” A 2008 Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) report showed the TB rate for Inuit to be 186 times higher than that for non-Aboriginals born in Canada. For First Nations it was 31 times higher. Then there’s water. In 2006, there were 100 First Nations communities under boiled water advisories. As of April 30, 2011, there were 122.

Like the Inuit and First Nations people, the Métis also experience poverty, disease and hardship at higher rates than non-Aboriginals. Respiratory illness represents a serious issue for the Métis. The Statistics Canada Aboriginal Peoples Survey showed 14 percent of Métis had asthma (8 percent for general population), 6 per cent suffer chronic bronchitis at 6 per cent and one in a hundred suffer emphysema and tuberculosis – rates much higher than the Canadian average. Housing is also an issue. According to the 2006 census, 15 per cent of Métis lived in homes in need of major repair compared to 7 per cent for the non-Aboriginal population. Métis across Canada are represented by the Métis National Council.

None of this is news to Canada’s First Nations leaders. They’ve been acutely aware of the suffering of their Aboriginal brothers and sisters for a long time. They are tired of the suicides, the illness, the poor drinking water and housing. They want justice. They want their people to receive the same basic services other Canadians enjoy.

National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, Shawn A-in-chut Atleo said Sheila Fraser’s 31 audits of First Nations living conditions provide “a broad non-partisan picture that things aren’t working…” The audits conducted over a ten year period reflect the “arbitrary” funding policies of both the Liberal and Conservative Governments.

The lack of legislated guarantees of funding transfers to First Nations is particularly damaging. Funding for education and health to First Nations has been capped at a 2 per cent annual increase since 1996. By contrast, provinces have statutory guarantees and on average receive a 6 per cent increase in transfers each year.

“The cap is very arbitrary and it has a very real negative impact on First Nations’ ability to support their citizens,” says Atleo. “Anecdotally, people like myself and my colleagues we know in our heart this is true but to have her (Fraser) as an independent observer producing work that is beyond reproach reflects on the whole country. ”

Mary Simon, President of the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK) says large gaps also exist in living conditions and services between Canada’s Inuit. ITK represents 55,000 Inuit living across four Inuit regions – Nunatsiavut (Labrador), Nunavik (northern Quebec), Nunavut, and the Inuvialuit Settlement Region in the Northwest Territories.

“One of the things we have been trying to get across to the federal government is that we want to work in partnership,” says Simon. “We are in the post equality era…Canada needs to recognize that as tax payers Inuit expect to have similar services to other Canadians. It should be a matter that you can’t have it because it is going to cost more.”

Betty Ann Lavallée, National Chief of the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples, said life for off-reserve Aboriginals isn’t much better. In 2001, the most recent figures available, almost one in four (24.8 per cent) off-reserve Aboriginal households were in core housing need, compared to 15.6 per cent of non-Aboriginal households. Off-reserve Aboriginals are in a jurisdictional crunch. Officially, they are under the jurisdiction of the provinces – subject to the same rules and regulations as non-Aboriginals. But as Aboriginals, they also come under the purview of the federal government that is, the Crown. The result? Both levels of government attempt to evade responsibility, according to Lavallée. For every $8 spent per capita on onreserve Aboriginals, off-reserve Aboriginals receive $1.

“Aboriginal people who don’t live on reserve are continually denied services provided to people who live on-reserve. We talk of ourselves as the forgotten people,” says Lavallée.

Aboriginal justice may be some time coming. In a 2003 Auditor General report, Sheila Fraser noted “despite some progress, the current level of investment by all parties is insufficient for many First Nations to sustain improvements and keep pace with the demand over the long term. As a result, the high levels of substandard housing and overcrowding are expected to continue.”

Legal protections such as section 35.1 and section 25 of the Constitution offer cold comfort. Under section 35.1, the rights – namely Aboriginal rights and treaty rights — of the Aboriginal Peoples of Canada are “recognized and affirmed.” Aboriginal rights pertain to the right to benefit and use Aboriginal land. This includes the right to hunt and fish. Treaty rights involve honouring treaties signed between European settlers and Aboriginal people. Section 25 provides an overarching protection to ensure no aspect of the Charter erodes Aboriginal rights and freedoms. Not all Aboriginal organizations are constitutionally protected. The Assembly of First Nations, the Métis Nation of Canada and the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami are. The Congress of Aboriginal Peoples is not.

“It is very important for Aboriginal people to have these constitutional guarantees. They aren’t something you can go around changing in the way provincial laws can be changed”, says Simon. “But these constitutional guarantees don’t always turn into something substantive in the short or even in the long term.”

Atleo agrees. “In practice, the constitutional guarantees have yet to be implemented that is, in essence the affirmation of treaty rights as referred to in section 35.1.” says Atleo. A case in point is Treaty 3 which refers to educational success and the sharing and understanding of each other’s (First Nations and Canadian) cultures.

Patty Ducharme, National Executive Vice-President of the Public Service Alliance of Canada, says “institutionalized racism” is at the core of Aboriginal disadvantage.” Ducharme who has Métis heritage says “we have a positive obligation to get rid of governmentally-operated practices that continue discrimination…” More Aboriginal children are in the welfare system today than at the height of the residential school system, says Ducharme.

Another sore point is the Indian Act and the rescinding of Liberal funding agreements with First Nations by the Conservatives. In 2006, the Harper Government scrapped the Kelowna Accord, a painstakingly pieced together $5.1 billion plan by First Nations and the Liberals to lift First Nations in British Columbia out of poverty. The Indian Act continues to entrench Aboriginal disadvantage – and dissension. For example, under the Indian Act, Aboriginals on reserve cannot obtain title to land or the seizure of Indian lands under legal process. This stops banks from enforcing a mortgage. No surprise then that Aboriginal home ownership rate is 28.5 per cent, compared to 67 per cent for the rest of Canada.

“The reason the government continues to do this is because they can,” says Ducharme. “Most people live under misconceptions about Aboriginal people that they don’t pay taxes, they get education for free and everyone lives a life of Riley. We have no political cache.”

In the end though, if numbers count, it is the Aboriginal people themselves that will – finally – have the last word on their own future. Between 1996 and 2006, the Aboriginal population increased by 45 per cent, nearly six times faster than that of non-Aboriginals. Aboriginal Canada is young, restless and tired of a system that has failed it. As Ducharme puts it: “Aboriginal Canada is the one segment of the population that is growing. We are going to be relying on Aboriginal people in the future to govern. In 2011, it is time for us to open the doors, level the playing field and make sure that Aboriginal people are treated equally.”

Aboriginal and Inuit Representative Groups in Canada

Aboriginal people in Canada are represented by three main organizations: the Métis National Council, the Assembly of First Nations, and the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami. Other representative groups such as the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples and National Association of Friendship Centres provide services and support to Aboriginals: Inuit, Métis, First Nations Non-Status and Non-Aboriginal people who live in areas. The Assembly of First Nations (AFN) is the national representative organization of the 630 First Nations communities in Canada. As a First Nations organization, it receives protection under the Canadian Constitution and has a special fiduciary relationship with the Crown forged through the signing of treaties during European settlement. Guiding the Assembly of First Nations is the AFN Secretariat. Issues of concern to the AFN include language and literacy, health, housing, social development, justice, taxation, land claims and environment.

The Métis National Council represents Métis across Canada. Like the Inuit and First Nations people, the Métis also experience poverty, disease and hardship at higher rates than non-Aboriginals. Housing is also an issue. According to the 2006 census, 15% of Métis lived in homes in need of major repair compared to 7% for the non-Aboriginal population.

The Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK) represents 555,000 Inuit people living in 52 communities across Canada. It Canada’s national Inuit advocacy organization and covers four main Inuit regions – Nunatsiavut (Labrador), Nunavik (Northern Quebec), Nunavut and the Inuvialuit Settlement Region in the Northwest Territories. The organization, headed by Mary Simon, was founded in 1971 is the Inuit voice on a wide variety of environmental, social, cultural and political issues. Like the AFN and the Métis National Council, the ITK and the Inuit themselves receive special legal protections under the Canadian Constitution.

The Congress of Aboriginal Peoples represents more than 800,000 off-reserve Indian, Inuit and Métis people across Canada. It is the umbrella organization for affiliate members across Canada that represents off-reserve Aboriginals. Of primary concern to the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples is the Indian Act and its effect on people of Aboriginal descent who are excluded from registration, band membership, residency on reserve or related programs and benefits. Other issues include improving the socio-economic status of Aboriginal people in its constituency and the exclusion from treaty rights of Aboriginal people who live in comprehensive claim areas. Unlike the ITK, the AFN and the MNC, the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples and its constituents are not recognized as receiving legal protection under the Charter.

Native Friendship Centres have existed for more than 50 years, and are located in all provinces and territories. In 2009, there were 116 centres, which served 750,000 individuals through 900 separate programs and services.


*Editor’s Note: Please see below for correction.

Dear Editor:  Congratulations for featuring leaders of the representative organizations of the Aboriginal Peoples of Canada. The article is generally revealing of century old policies of denial, dispossession, disinheritance, and division of the Aboriginal Nations of Aboriginal Peoples continuing throughout this vast land, confederated as Canada.

There is an obvious error in the article “blued column. There are presently five “Aboriginal Peoples Representative Organizations”, and not just the three noted. The Congress of Aboriginal Peoples formally the Native Council of Canada is representative, as noted later in the article.   And the Native Women’s Association of Canada is also a representative organization.

I don’t know what this means “…the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples and its constituents are not recognized as receiving legal protections under the Charter.”

The Congress and every Aboriginal Person in Canada is protected under the Charter, and the organized communities of Aboriginal Peoples outside “Indian Act Reserves” also enjoy treaty rights and have the protection of Section 25 and all other sections of the Charter.

Thank you for the effort and I am glad that Ottawa Life is expanding its reach.

Roger J. Hunka
Maritime Aboriginal Peoples Council