Brighter future in sight

PARRY SOUND, Ontario – To listen to the politicians at an election forum sponsored by the Anishinabek Nation, indigenous people in Canada can look forward to a bright future.

“If elected, what priority will your party place on First Peoples’ issues?” moderator Bob Goulais asked the five candidates in the central Ontario riding of Parry Sound-Muskoka.

“This obviously has to be a very high priority,” replied Tony Clement, federal health minister in the Conservative government who is seeking re-election.

Clement, formerly a cabinet minister in the right-wing provincial government of Mike Harris that ruled Ontario from 1995 to 2002, won the 2006 federal election by just 28 votes.

This is one of around 60 ridings where the aboriginal vote could have a significant impact. Some two dozen people attended the forum, held in a hotel on the highway south of Parry Sound, including chiefs from some of the 42 Ontario First Nations that make up the Anishinabek Nation.

Clement cited tripartite health agreements he signed last year in British Columbia and recently in Saskatchewan that provide for more local control, extra federal money and access to provincial resources, adding that a similar agreement on education is also a priority for his party. “We cannot divorce health care outcomes from education.”

Liberal candidate Jamie McGarvey expressed shock at the fact that a child at a reserve school is funded by the federal government to the tune of $4,000 annually while other children, educated in provincially funded institutions, receive $8,000 a year.

“There’s something wrong with that, very wrong,” he said, “and I think that commitment needs to be there to bring that back up.”

The Liberals ruled Canada from 1993 – 2006, a period during which conditions in First Nations communities declined on many fronts – from health to education to employment to water safety. It wasn’t until the very end of their mandate that the Kelowna Accord was signed, an agreement between Canada, its provinces and territories, First Nations, Métis and Inuit people to fast-track elimination of inequality in health, education, housing and economic opportunity.

And it was the Conservative government, elected in 2006, that shelved the accord that would have spent $5.1 billion in the first five years, favoring a different approach that, it turned out, involved budgeting a fraction of the funds.

Meanwhile, both parties presided over a 2 percent cap introduced in 1996 by the Department of Indian Affairs on growth in expenditures for education, housing, infrastructure, and social and economic development. The cap fails to keep up with inflation or an aboriginal population increase that’s 3.5 times the national average.

As a result, in 12 years, many communities have fallen further into poverty and the impact is devastating for the 50 percent of residents who are under 25. The education funding gap referred to by McGarvey is the one that seems the most self-defeating in a country hungry for skilled workers.

Interestingly, the health tripartite agreement Clement signed was one of the few gains salvaged from Kelowna. It grew out of a sidebar accord inked in 2005 by the then-Liberal government, the province and British Columbia’s First Nations Leadership Council. Agreements covering education, treaty and housing issues are to follow.

The promises of opposition parties can sound all the more convincing for not having to be held up to the litmus test of a record in office. Both Green Party candidate Glen Hodgson and New Democrat Jo-Anne Boulding spoke passionately of their commitment to addressing these issues.

“It’s absolutely disgraceful that we have people living in poverty,” said Hodgson, adding that the “glaring exception” to everything that one loves about Canada can be found in the “glaring inequality” faced by First Peoples.

Boulding urged support for indigenous youth, instead of demonizing them: “Honor what they do right instead of highlighting what they might do wrong.”

The candidates from four political parties, plus independent David Rowland, all offered support for priorities identified by the Anishinabek Nation – implementation of its economic blueprint, enhanced education and training opportunities, a renewed focus on treaty implementation and protection for First Nations languages.

But only four of the five favored adoption of the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Under the Conservative government, Canada was one of just four states to vote against it. (The United States was another.)

Clement, the lone exception, didn’t mention his own opposition to the declaration, and he wasn’t put on the spot for it – presumably because of forum ground rules that precluded “negativity.”

Union of Ontario Indians Grand Chief John Beaucage, leader of the Anishinabek Nation, conceded that there was a “motherhood” aspect to the discussion. “Each one of the candidates said the right things, but are they going to really do it or not? What we’re looking for is eventually whoever gets elected to really take these things up and do something about them.”

The forum marked the final week of the Canadian election campaign. Contrary to expectations that may have been raised by Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s formal apology in June to residential school survivors and undertakings made on the occasion of two national days of action aimed at raising the profile of aboriginal issues – still they are missing from the election.

They were not one of the 16 “theme” questions put to party leaders during their television debate.

Leaders like National Chief Phil Fontaine of the Assembly of First Nations have expressed disappointment at the campaign’s lack of attention to one of Canada’s most pressing human rights issues.