(Québec) You can get used to anything, even to failure. And if a conclusion can be drawn from Canada's efforts to improve the fate of Aboriginal nations, it is that we are looking at a failure.
We sometimes need an outside view to force us to react to a reality to which we have become desensitized. James Anaya, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, recently released his report entitled: “The situation of indigenous peoples in Canada.” In it he states that, since the last report by his predecessor, the gap between the living conditions of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples has remained the same.
These peoples, called First Nations, are too often at the bottom of the social ladder. The UN Special Rapporteur also extracted from his data a powerful image: “[…] of the bottom 100 Canadian communities on the Community Wellbeing Index, 96 are First Nations, and only one First Nation community is in the top 100.”
Another well-known reality is the unacceptable number of incarcerated Aboriginal people. Although they represent only 4% of the Canadian population, they account for 25% of the prison population, especially women. Indeed, Aboriginal women represent 33% of the total number of female inmates in Canada. These women actually represent the fastest growing group in penitentiaries.
The Rapporteur also criticized the Harper government for not consulting Aboriginal peoples regarding a series of bills that will affect them.
No one can say that successive governments, since the Chrétien government, have not attempted to find solutions. But if it is true that there is no one right answer, it is also true that we can no longer settle for a piecemeal approach. The proof of our failures is before us.
Indeed, the effects of the residential schools tragedy are felt by several generations, and sooner or later, we will need a public inquiry into the murders and disappearances of Aboriginal women. But to find a lasting solution, we must tackle a basic problem: the contract between our peoples.
Despite all the changes made to the Indian Act, it still reflects colonial and racist thinking from another era. The only way to get rid of it is to write a new contract, in partnership with Aboriginal Nations.
It is not an impossible task. The real problem is that those who are hurting as a result of the current situation are not the ones who hold power. And the current administration has no impetus to take on such an undertaking. It has not always been thus.
When Quebec needed hydroelectric resources from the James Bay area, the Cree and Inuit peoples suddenly developed a bargaining power they had never had before. They used it and forced the government to sign the James Bay Agreement.
The James Bay experience demonstrates that, where there is real political will to tackle a problem, it is possible to innovate and build on new foundations.
The challenge is daunting. Not only because of Canada’s vastness but also because of the many Aboriginal Nations, which do not form the artificial homogeneous unit described in the Indian Act. The problem created by such a diverse group was made evident recently when the Assembly of First Nations broke up regarding the federal education bill. But it also proves that the piecemeal approach has reached its limits.