Inside Story Americas
Can Canada overcome its 'Katrina moment'?
As the country's prime minister meets with aboriginal chiefs, we look at the plight of some First Nations communities.
Last Modified: 24 Jan 2012 13:25

More than 400 aboriginal chiefs will meet Stephen Harper, the Canadian prime minister, and government ministers at a summit known as the Crown-First Nations Gathering in Ottawa. It is the first official meeting of its kind since he took office in 2006.

"It is important for indigenous nations to participate at the global level and [to] have a say in how those international laws and instruments are created and applied within states as well as within tribal governments."

- Rex Lee Jim, the vice-president of the Navajo Nation in the US

The aim is to improve the relationship between the Canadian government and what is known as Canada's First Nations communities.

That relationship stalled six years ago when the current Conservative government abandoned a five-year, $5bn plan known as the Kelowna Accord.

That agreement sought to improve education, employment and living conditions for aboriginal peoples through government funding.

Resolving outstanding land claims is among the top priorities. Aboriginal leaders feel the current process of settling the claims unjustly favours the federal government.

Also high on the list of priorities is economic development. First Nation leaders want to secure a fair share of revenues from the exploitation of natural resources on aboriginal lands.

And on health and education, most First Nation leaders will be pressing for a commitment to levels of funding and services comparable with those for non-aboriginal communities.

"When the immigrants came across to the US and took our lands ... we had treaties that protected our rights for funding, healthcare, education, housing and infrastructure. [Since then] one policy after another from the federal government has given us limited access to resources to make it a level playing field."

- Jacqueline Pata from the National Congress of American Indians

Meanwhile, the Canadian government is increasingly coming into conflict with the needs of First Nations communities as it promotes the extraction of oil and other natural resources.

Last week, health and environmental concerns prompted tribal chiefs to reject a proposed pipeline from the Tar Sands to the Pacific Coast.

Earlier this month, a First Nations group sued the government for $10bn - alleging that they were not adequately compensated for potash and oil developments on their land.

A diamond mine projected to become one of the richest in the world is just upstream from the poverty-stricken town of Attawapiskat on James Bay. The mine is on traditional lands, but the royalties flow to the province.

That town also made headlines recently over living conditions when it was found that people were living in tents, shacks and trailers in temperatures of minus 20 degrees Celsius.

Charles Angus, a member of parliament representing James Bay, describes the conditions within several of the First Nation communities as an "international disgrace for our nation". 

He tells Inside Story: "The Attawapiskat crisis certainly shook Canada. In a way it has been our Katrina moment because Canadians were shocked that people were living in such dire conditions but then also shocked that the government had no plan, no seeming interest to respond."

So what is the state of the relationship between federal governments and aboriginal communities across North America? And how should these issues be addressed and their living standards improved? Will the Ottawa summit deal with the real issues at hand, or is it just a photo-opportunity?

Joining presenter Anand Naidoo to discuss this are: Cindy Blackstock, the executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada; Rex Lee Jim, the vice-president of the Navajo Nation in the US; and Jacqueline Pata, the executive director at the National Congress of American Indians.

"Canada not only created these reserves, they displaced First Nation's laws with provincial child welfare, education and health laws that should apply to all Canadians. The result is most horribly experienced by children. One-in-six First Nations communities don't even have the basics like water; some of them are using buckets for sewers. The list goes on and it is unacceptable in a wealthy country like ours, and completely preventable."

Cindy Blackstock from the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada

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