Canada’s First Nations Crisis: Unpacking the Past, Looking to the Future

Photo - Darryl Dyck/CP

Keppra price uk his comment is here 2011 was a low point for Canada’s relations with Indigenous peoples, as the Attawapiskat First Nation declared a state of emergency and was revealed to be living in third-world conditions. Though little has changed since then, Justin Trudeau and the new Liberal government seem prepared to repair relations and improve the lives of Indigenous peoples in 2016.

On October 28, 2011 the Attawapiskat First Nation, an isolated aboriginal nation located in northern Ontario, declared a state of emergency due to inadequate housing. As temperatures dropped, many residents were still living in tents and temporary shelters, and many residences lacked running water and electricity. Two construction trailers were housing over 90 people, who shared four stoves and four washrooms. Many families were living in buildings which had been condemned. Others relied on buckets for toilets.

This declaration of a state of emergency attracted national and international media attention immediately. As the Canadian Red Cross began providing emergency relief in December, pictures of squalid shacks and crowded trailers prompted comparison between Attawapiskat and third world nations. Former Canadian Governor General Michaëlle Jean, who was born in Haiti, commented that “there are situations I see in Haiti that are very similar to what I see in our aboriginal communities. We have a Third World in Canada, and it’s with our aboriginal peoples.” James Anaya, the United Nations special rapporteur on indigenous peoples published a statement calling the conditions “dire.”

The government’s response had mixed results. In early 2012, the federal government rushed 22 pre-fabricated homes to the community, allowing those in the most precarious shelters to survive throughout the winter. However, the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs John Duncan also decided to send in a third-party manager, essentially an accountant to examine the books. This action seemed to presume that the band’s financial irresponsibility was at the heart of the crisis, even though there was no evidence of any financial wrongdoing when the manager was sent. A federal court decision called the intervention “unreasonable” and “an embarrassment”. The perceived lack of trust further strained relations between the government and First Nations people.

Though the specifics of the Attawapiskat housing crisis may have been unique, there was immediate recognition that the crisis represented something more general. As the United Nations noted, the conditions of the Attawapiskat “seems to represent the conditions of many First Nations communities living on reserves throughout Canada.” Indeed, even though Canada ranks ninth on the U.N. Human Development Index, Canada’s First Nations fall somewhere between 63rd and 78th on the same indices. Between 2004 and 2014, two-thirds of First Nations communities have been under at least one drinking water advisory.

The crisis in Attawapiskat was also seen as a sign of a failed relationship between the government and First Nations. Shawn Atleo, then the national Aboriginal chief of Canada, claimed the situation was the result of systemic problems between Ottawa and First Nations communities. He called the crisis a “moment of reckoning” that would shake up the way the government deals with First Nations. The following year also saw many calls for change in the relationship between Canada and First Nations. Theresa Spence, the chief of the Attawapiskat First Nation, went on a 43-day hunger strike calling for Prime Minister Stephen Harper to meet with her and other chiefs to discuss treaty rights. The Idle No More movement, a grassroots First Nations protest movement, staged numerous protests demanding that the Canadian government honor its obligation to meaningfully consult First Nations and to affirm their treaty rights.

While little has changed since 2011, the coming year will likely be the start of progress for First Nations in Canada. The past months have witnessed the conclusion of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission after years of listening to the testimony of Canada’s residential schools survivors, and increased political attention on the status of First Nations. The Liberal Party’s victory in the Canadian elections in October represents the potential for a change in policy. During the campaign, Liberal leader Justin Trudeau made many promises regarding First Nations, including increased consultation, a veto over development in their territory, increased funding for education, and implementing all 94 recommendations issued by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Since taking office two months ago, Prime Minister Trudeau has already taken a different approach to First Nations relations than his predecessor. While Harper did not meet with all of the First Nations chiefs in one room during his nearly 10 years in office, Trudeau met with the Assembly of First Nations in early December. Trudeau called for a “renewed, nation-to-nation relationship with First Nations peoples”. As well, Trudeau invited the Assembly of First Nations National Chief to attend the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Paris as part of the Canadian delegation.

In early December, the Liberals announced the launch of the initial phase of a national inquiry into Canada’s missing and murdered aboriginal women. A 2014 Royal Canadian Mounted Police report found that 1,017 indigenous women were killed or disappeared between 1980 and 2012, a homicide rate over four times higher than for other women. While aboriginal activists have been calling for an investigation for over a decade, Harper remarked last year that an inquiry “isn’t really high on our radar”. The government will be holding consultation sessions with victims’ families over the next two months before likely launching an inquiry this spring.

Ultimately, it may be too early to tell how the Liberal government will interact with First Nations. As with many issues, the budget presented to the House of Commons next spring will show if Trudeau’s money is where his mouth is. The barriers to raising the living standards of First Nations in Canada are significant, and increased funding for infrastructure and education are necessary. While many First Nations communities still live in conditions similar to those of Attawapiskat in 2011, this could start to change in the coming years.