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Sweeping Plan Announced to Improve Reserve Conditions

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The Assembly of First Nations and the Ministry of Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) have announced a sweeping joint plan to tackle problems on reserves ranging from poverty to education, eliminate portions of the Indian Act, and lay the foundation for a meeting between aboriginal and government leaders.

Besides education, cornerstones of the plan announced on June 9 address governance, economic development, and negotiation and implementation, the latter involving “meaningful dialogue” on treaty relationships and the development of “concrete options to reinvigorate treaty relationships” that were forged previously between INAC and the AFN, their joint release said. It also lays the groundwork for a long-promised meeting between Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government and top aboriginal leaders.

With the plan, Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada (AANDC, the new name for INAC) and the AFN "commit to advancing a constructive relationship based on the core principles of mutual understanding, respect, ensuring mutually acceptable outcomes and accountability," the plan stated. “Finally, AANDC and the AFN will prepare options for the possibility of holding a First Nations–Crown Gathering. This could also provide a forum for joint discussions and presentations by First Nations, governments and key stakeholders.”

Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn A-in-chut Atleo praised the plan.

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"This plan begins with key principles that recognize and affirm Aboriginal and Treaty rights," he said in a statement. "By affirming the relationship between First Nations and the Government of Canada, and setting clear priorities, we can achieve real results for our peoples. First Nations have been consistently calling for real engagement and real partnership to advance First Nation priorities and to build on the apology for residential schools as well as the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples."

The Globe and Mail called the move a "historic shift" even as the final report of outgoing auditor general Sheila Fraser was released in which she expressed profound disappointment in not only a lack of progress on First Nations reserves but also a deterioration of conditions. It was also released the same day that a report, “Our Dreams Matter Too: First Nations children’s rights, lives and education,” detailing reserve schools' deplorable conditions, was submitted to the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child by a team of children and education officials headed by Cindy Blackstock, a child welfare advocate in British Columbia.

“I am disappointed that conditions on reserves have worsened and are well below the national average,” the Toronto Star reported, quoting interim Auditor General John Wiersema at a news conference in Ottawa on June 9. He was officially delivering the report assembled by Fraser, who left office on May 30.

Fraser, whose team compared her 16 reports spanning her 10-year tenure looking for change, concluded: "In a country as rich as Canada, this disparity is unacceptable."

Atleo said, "Today's report by the auditor general shows we have much work to do, and we can move forward by working together in partnership and respect."