TRUTH AND RECONCILIATION
Never a Glass of Water from Their Tap
By Tyrone Souliere
Oh look — there's a double-standard elephant in the room, so let's talk about it.
The Liberal government is taking in 25,000 Syrian refugees running for their lives from ISIS, and this is as it should be.
The government should take in as many of these refugees as possible because it is the right thing to do. First Nations, too, have a tradition of taking in strangers and travelers, and helping those who are in need.
It is ultimately a good thing that the government is working overtime and investing $1.2 billion over the next six years, and using whatever resources necessary to ensure that the new Canadians are immediately provided with everything they need upon arrival: access to health care, shelter, clean water, and let's not forget education and employment. According to the Canadian Press, the proposed funding model indicates $876.7 million will be needed in 2015 and 2016 to fulfill this promise. These things cost money.
But what about the ongoing plight of First Nations people across Canada?
In Indian Country, First Nations have been fighting, for many decades, for many of the same basic human needs that the refugees have been fighting for. And for many decades First Nations have been ignored and have had services underfunded or cut. In stark contrast to the immediate urgency with which the government is providing the basics for the new immigrants, First Nations are again waiting, at the back of the line.
While the majority of Canadians — including the newly arrived — enjoy one of the highest standards of living in the world, First Nations are, as usual, on the bottom rung of the ladder when it comes to housing, health care, education, employment, and the most basic of all basic needs — clean water. Four hundred of 630 First Nations communities are under boil-water advisories.
But there is hope — there is some light, coming from the end of the seemingly unending and perpetual tunnel of the First Nations battle for fundamental human needs.
On December 8, at the Assembly of First Nations' (AFN) 2015 Special Chiefs Assembly (SCA) in Gatineau, Quebec, in a speech of historic significance, newly minted Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised to:
1. Launch a national public inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women which is expected to last up to two years and cost $40 million.
2. Make significant investments in First Nations education with initial, new investment of $515 million per year in core annual funding for kindergarten through Grade 12. This will rise to over $750 million per year by the end of the Liberals' first mandate. It includes funding that Harper promised and never delivered, plus an additional $300 million every year.
3. Lift the two per cent cap on funding programs that has been imposed upon First Nations for 20 years.
4. Implement all 94 recommendations flowing from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
5. Repeal all legislation unilaterally imposed on Indigenous people by the previous government. This must include Bill C-51, the so-called anti-terror bill, and parts of the omnibus Bill C-45, that specifically attacks the treaty statuses and treaty rights around lands in Canada. The Conservative government pushed both bills through without proper consultation or consent of First Nations.
Justin Trudeau has also declared that "The constitutional guaranteed rights of First Nations people in Canada are not an inconvenience, but a sacred obligation."
These are all excellent commitments, and they are welcomed, but they will take many years to fully implement.
There is a litany of problems on First Nations that demands immediate action from the government, but for the sake of space, let's consider just one — clean water.
As mentioned, approximately 400 of the 630 First Nations, about two thirds, are under boil-water advisories. Many of these advisories have been in place for well over ten years.
Shoal Lake First Nation in Manitoba has been under a boil-water advisory for 18 years. Neskantaga in Ontario has been under a boil-water advisory for more than 20 years. Ending the boil-water advisories will take up to five years, according to Trudeau.
It could be 25 to 26 years of living without safe tap water for entire communities before anything is fixed.
There are children and young adults in some communities who have never had a glass of water from their tap.
In contrast, the government will ensure that 25,000 refugees, with remarkably similar needs to those of First Nations, will be taken care of within months.
Why this disparity?
Why will it take five years to fix something that has been festering on First Nations for many decades, yet the refugee agenda is being fast tracked at light speed?
Why the double standard? Why can't the First Nation issues be attended to, at the very least, with the same urgency?
It is true that the refugees have been waiting in 'third-world' conditions, for up to four or five years in refugee camps, but First Nations have been waiting for hundreds of years, some in well-documented third-world conditions, in the middle of a country with one of the highest standards of living on the planet.
This is not an "us and them" issue. This is an equality issue.
And it is more evidence of First Nations' basic human rights taking a back seat to the needs of others.
The Liberal government should resolve First Nations issues with the same vigour and urgency, just as quickly as they are resolving the very similar problems of the refugees. It is their "sacred obligation."
Again, it's not a matter of us vs. them, it's a matter of equity and justice. Equity and justice for everyone — even for First Nations.