Canada’s 36th First Nations Annual General Assembly began on Tuesday in Montreal, following weeks of media controversy. Collectively, First Nations people face a growing socio-economic gap, compared to non-Aboriginal Canadians, in education, vocational training, housing, and health services.
In early June, Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission issued a damning report that described the country’s church-run, government-funded residential school system as “cultural genocide” against indigenous peoples. Furthermore, it stated the current relationship between the federal government and aboriginal peoples is “deteriorating” due to ongoing conflicts over education, child welfare, and justice.
Canada’s Conservative federal government has had perennial headaches dealing with First Nations issues. In February 2014, the government announced $1.49 billion in federal money for a First Nations education act, thinking they had the support of the Chief of the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) and fellow indigenous leaders. However, other indigenous leaders opposed the legislation because they felt it gave the federal government too much control, and the deal subsequently collapsed (and the AFN’s leadership shifted.)
Violence and murder within First Nations communities is another lightning-rod topic. Last March, Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt claimed that 70% of murdered aboriginal women were killed by aboriginal men. He took serious heat from some First Nations people who felt that he was unfairly placing blame on indigenous people. However, Valcourt’s comments have since been supported by new Canadian federal police statistics, released in June, which show that aboriginal women (just like women of other ethnicities) continue to be most frequently killed by men they know.
Perry Bellegarde, AFN national chief since December 2014, wants to see a national public inquiry to address the crisis of violence against First Nations women. This call has also been supported by opposition parties, provincial and territorial premiers, and the U.N. special rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples. But the Conservatives continue to reject the idea of a national inquiry, saying that the government supports provincial efforts to counter the violence, and that further study is not needed.
Adding fuel to the fire, on Monday, the U.N. Human Rights Committee opened its review of Canada’s compliance to the International Covenant on Political and Civil Rights. This is the first review since 2005, and it is expected to heavily criticize the Conservative government’s policies. The Canadian Human Rights Commission told the panel that the plight of the country’s Aboriginal people is “one of the most pressing human rights issues facing Canada today.”
All eyes are on the upcoming Canadian elections in October, which the First Nations are now mobilizing to influence. (First Nations people were only granted the right to vote in federal elections in 1961.) Bellegarde said on Tuesday that aboriginal issues must be “front and center” for all parties in the upcoming ballot. He stressed that if First Nations people exercise their right to vote, they can significantly influence the outcome in “at least 51 ridings” across Canada. “We have to harness that political power because members of parliament running, if they know that First Nations people don’t vote, they don’t really care about our issues. We’re saying, this time, we’re going to make a difference.”
Bellegarde maintains that the AFN will work with any government to build partnerships and relationships. The good news is that the First Nations are working within the system to improve it, and Canada’s democracy can change.