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Canadian Aboriginal presence growing strong

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Some people say we are too positive on American Indian potentials. We actually believe that all times are treacherous, and the present is no different. But in the turbulence, we do see that Indian people with developed skills and a proper sense of direction working toward the benefit of their peoples can do a lot of good. The exercise of sovereignty and control of tribal assets is completely necessary. The criticism that we are too positive reminds us of the time a young warrior, peeved about being outsmarted, told one of the most good-minded (and politically astute) of our elder matrons, "You smile too much for an Indian."

From expectations of near extermination in the early 1900s, Native peoples' populations throughout the Americas have been growing. Although severe deprivation, sudden epidemics and violence still threaten a number of Native peoples with decimation, the overall population of the indigenous Americas has grown. Resilience of Native communities strengthened a tribal base that has endured.

Consider Canada, where a 2001 Census analysis released by Statistics Canada this month shows a Native population growth of 22 percent over just five years (1996-2001). This raises the number of people who identify as an Aboriginal person of Canada to 976,305 people. Those who identified as people with Aboriginal ancestry climbed to 1.3 million people. Half of this remarkable rate of growth is attributable to higher birth rates and lower death rates. The Aboriginal population is young, with a median age of 24.7, as compared to 37.7 for the national median. The other half is attributable to substantial growth in the Metis and other Native people across Canada. The Metis, who have actively sought the broadest base of population in recent years, have increased by 43 percent. However, Canada's "Status" Indians increased also, by 15 percent, while Inuit increased by 12 percent.

Throughout the 20th Century, Canadian Aboriginals grew slowly, basically holding on for the first 50 years, then surging sevenfold from 1951 to 2001. Nearly one-half now live on reserves and more Native people are moving onto reserves than off. About one quarter can speak a Native language, a figure that is down from 1996, when 29 percent could speak. A number of Native languages gained between 10 to over 20 percent of new speakers, including Dene, Montagnai-Naskapi and Attikamekw. Inuit have the highest rate of language retention; around 70 percent still speak their language.

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The result is a much more visible and vibrant Native population, albeit severely impoverished and in need of many social services. Most important on the agenda: the need for much improved education and job training. Two thirds of Canadian Native students drop out of high school. Furthermore, many of the 30 percent who graduate can not find jobs. Suicide rates are high among young people desperate for opportunities and in need of vision. Beyond the nearly 30,000 Native college students, according to the Assembly of First Nations, nearly 10,000 Native college students are denied access to higher education for lack of funds.

As quoted in the Canadian press recently, author Diamond Jennes wrote in "The Indians of Canada" (1932), "Doubtless all the tribes will disappear. Some will endure only a few years longer."

Although political termination remains a danger, ethnic disappearance is no longer a credible threat when it comes to the Native peoples of Canada. Seventy years after Jennes, the evidence of population growth leads to a much different conclusion. Yet, the population increases as opportunities shrink. And the persistence of massive dislocation, resource and land dispossession, plus several generations of boarding school alienation, with its frequent abuse, has engendered much social ill and cultural confusion. Opportunity is minimal for many young Native people of a generation with a growing talent base. Canadian authorities need to seriously consider a much-strengthened national college attendance movement. Better high schools and special programs for skills training are called for. Much more attention and support to the positive potentials is needed, not the least of which is a renewed recognition of First Nations sovereignty. Tribal governments must have their land and resources returned, the powers to establish their own laws and governing institutions, freed from the heavy imperial impositions of provincial and federal interference, and must have the sole power of taxation on Indian lands.

Canada has seen its share of confrontational politics in its dealings with its First Nations. But many feel the need to create good working partnerships. We congratulate and salute the work of Native leaders who endeavor diligently for the future of their growing nations.