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Structural racism pushing Canada's Indigenous to the edge

TORONTO, Ontario ? In the wake of terrorist attacks in the United States, National Chief Matthew Coon Come of the Assembly of First Nations reminded members of the Canadian Bar that tragedy comes in many forms, including chronic suffering.

In an Oct. 1 address, Coon Come pointed out that the Star reported that in Canada, one of the richest nations in the world which has enjoyed six years of uninterrupted economic growth, one of every five children lives in poverty.

'It indicated that this tragedy is suffered disproportionately by Aboriginal children ? six out of every 10 Aboriginal pre-schoolers in Canada live in dire poverty.'

The chief reported that while unemployment in Canada the past year has been approximately 7 percent, 'Unemployment in many of our First Nations communities is as high as 90 percent.' If that were any other group in Canada, 'It would be a national emergency,' he said.

Aboriginal peoples in Canada are dying of poverty-related diseases such as tuberculosis and diabetes at rates far higher than Canadians overall. We have much shorter life expectancies. Our babies are more than twice as likely to die at birth.'

He reminded the group most reserve communities, federal towns, have few basic amenities taken for granted elsewhere in Canada. 'Our roads are mostly unlit, not paved and have no sidewalks. Few of our communities have libraries. Many lack adequate sanitation, clean drinking water and proper recreational facilities.'

But perhaps the worst, he said, is that because of 'grinding poverty, hopelessness and despair, our Aboriginal youth are killing themselves in epidemic numbers.'

Coon Come said the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (RCAP) stated clearly that this sends a 'blunt and shocking message to Canada that a significant number of Aboriginal people in this country believe that they have more reason to die than to live.'

He said he has been roundly criticized for his remarks at the recent World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa, but reminded the audience he was not using his words, but those of the Royal Commission, 'an extensive, $50 million, five-year study, established to examine the situation of Aboriginal peoples in Canada and to identify solutions.'

That study has been 'buried and ignored by the government of Canada, and sadly, by the people of Canada,' Coon Come said. 'For five years now, we have heard nothing but silence from the government of Canada with respect to the RCAP's most fundamental recommendations.'

The First Nations leader said he had been encouraged by the federal Liberal government's Speech from the Throne Jan. 1 which 'officially committed the government to addressing the social and economic conditions of Aboriginal peoples, as a matter of highest priority.'

Yet, in the wake of the tragedy in New York City, the government stated 'it may be suspending its Throne Speech agenda and that 'Everything now is on hold.'

'Addressing the appalling social and economic conditions of Aboriginal peoples cannot be discretionary. The perpetuation of our chronic suffering ? which threatens our viability as peoples ? cannot be justified by the government of Canada on any currently foreseeable grounds. We cannot yet again be asked to remain patiently at the back of the Canadian bus.'

Coon Come said when he discussed the disparities faced by Aboriginal peoples in highly developed Canada, he was 'severely criticized' by the government and press for 'being inflammatory, extreme, unacceptable and not helpful.'

He added that Minister of Indian and Northern Affairs Robert Nault 'went so far as to demand an apology from me for disseminating the findings of a Royal Commission and the United Nations human rights bodies, at an international conference called to discuss all forms of racism.'

The chief added it was 'interesting and sad' the minister did not recognize the words for which he demanded an apology as being from 'official reports with which he should be very familiar.'

He explained that he did not say individual Canadians are racist. 'In fact I clearly stated many times my genuine belief that Canadians overall are broad minded and fair and seek justice ? However, it seems that I broke the rules by saying in South Africa that structural racism against Aboriginal peoples persists in Canada.'

Coon Come explained he is a Cree from Eeyou Istchee 'which is our word in Cree for Our Home, Our Lands on the eastern shore of James Bay and Hudson's Bay.'

He told how in the 1970s the governments of Canada and Quebec and the Crown Corporation Hydro Quebec, imposed the largest hydroelectric development in the world 'on our lands and people. We were not consulted in advance.'

Saying acts of this nature constituted structural racism, he further explained that the James Bay Cree Nation entered into a treaty with the government ? the James Bay Northern Quebec Agreement ? 'with a gun at (the leaders) heads.'

That treaty or out-of-court settlement was 'clearly intended to assist us economically, socially and culturally in coping with the devastation and flooding of our lands.' With the Constitution Act of 1982, the rights and promises of the treaty became constitutional obligations' on the part of the government, he said.

Now, though the Cree represent the majority of the population in their traditional territory, 'we have fewer than 3 percent of the jobs.'

Coon Come said that of 1,800 jobs in forestry, Crees have less than 3 percent; of 1,400 mining jobs, 8 percent go to the Cree. In Hydro-Quebec, just seven positions or 1 percent of the jobs.

'In the middle of this economic well-being, mass unemployment, and the poverty, ill health and hopelessness it causes, are endemic among my people.'

He said the solution is not a complex sovereignty nor a complex political problem, but a developmental problem studied extensively and for which a blueprint for change is in place. 'Canada is a G7 economy. It has the fiscal and technical capacity. Sadly, this capacity and know-how is being systematically withheld.'

Coon Come said increased and adequate access to the lands and resources and economic activity 'right on our front doorsteps is not unaffordable' and will pay dividends. 'It is not complicated. It is just a question of political will.'

The chief suggested most of those in the audience probably have heard, repeatedly, that the 'government of Canada gives Aboriginal peoples $7 billion a year.'

But he questioned 'what kind of a gift is a welfare check that can't properly feed a northern family ? where prices of the most basic commodities such as milk and bread are sky high?

'How can that welfare check be a gift at all when the check is needed because families and communities have been deprived of their traditional subsistence activities and are locked out of the economic activities taking place in their own backyards, whether it be in forestry, a factory, a hydroelectric mega-project, a mine, or the fishery, as at Burnt Church?'

He questioned the gift substandard health care, unsafe water and sanitation and roads that aren't paved are conditions that 'would not be tolerated by Canadians overall.'

'What kind of gift is it to be told over and over that our people are a $7 billion, tax-free burden on this country? Are the people of the Maritimes not also a burden on Canada?' he asked. 'Or the non-Native people in the poorer districts of Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver? Or the 500 top earners in Canada who pay little or no tax? Or major corporations that pay no tax? ?

'This all goes to show that it is equally absurd to term any part of Canada's population a burden. So-called burdens occur as a matter of history and government policy and they can be remedied,' Coon Come said.

'Each time I meet with a federal Cabinet Minister, I am lectured that the federal government 'has no taste for a rights agenda. The Minister of Indian Affairs has so little taste for a rights agenda that he recently slashed the budget of the Assembly of First Nations by 33 percent.

'I can only regard this as a punitive move, a response to my articulation, in Canada and in Durban, of a rights agenda for our people at Burnt Church, at Ipperwash, and right across this land.

'The social, legal and constitutional imperative of fundamental change to end these injustices against Aboriginal peoples in Canada have been characterized as 'typically incendiary rhetoric' for too long.'

The chief concluded that he could not 'apologize for disseminating a message of the urgent need to respect, protect and honor our Aboriginal, treaty and other human rights. It is a message which is respectful, moderate and in the national interest of Canada and of all Canadians.'