A perceived breakdown in the relationship between aboriginal and non-aboriginal Canadians has spurred the creation of a new organization led by former prime ministers and aboriginal activists.
Those involved in the group include former prime minister Paul Martin, former prime minister Joe Clark, and several former leaders of aboriginal groups. They say without fixing the relationship through education and discussion, the difficult economic and social conditions faced by many aboriginal people can't be improved.
"I think that Canadians feel very strongly that the condition that indigenous Canadians find themselves in is just simply not tolerable. There is a huge desire out there for the kind of partnership that we are talking about up here," Martin said at the news conference in Ottawa. .
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The declaration calling for a new partnership was signed this morning by a coalition of indigenous and political leaders. The goal of Canadians for a New Partnership is to achieve better living conditions, education, and economic opportunities for aboriginal groups -- but first everyone must pledge to work together, the group says.
Joining Martin and Clark in backing the new initiative are former Assembly of First Nations national chief Ovide Mercredi, former Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami leader Mary Simon, former N.W.T. premier Stephen Kakfwi, former auditor general of Canada Sheila Fraser and Justice Murray Sinclair, who led the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
Clark is optimistic that the new partnership can have an impact on the current government.
"There may be disagreements on particular policies… but we believe that among the people who we can influence, and we hope involve constructively, are members of the present government."
Mercredi says the organization will be aimed at reconciliation.
"Part of the reconciliation that needs to happen, clearly, is to deal with the treaties and the Constitution but not to stop there, because people need help right now for basic things like better education, better health care and so on."
Partnership garners mixed reactions
Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau used the announcement to criticize the Harper government's relationship with aboriginal people.
“For years now, the federal government has failed in its duty to partner with indigenous communities. Today’s initiative has emerged as the direct result of this failure to provide national leadership,” Trudeau said in a statement.
The Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs was quick to reject the accusation. “Our government will continue to work with aboriginal Canadians to create economic opportunities and improve the quality of life of First Nations. Our investments in jobs training, safe drinking water and infrastructure, in addition to legislation that ensures the same basic matrimonial rights for women, are contributing to stronger, more self-sufficient and prosperous First Nation communities,” it said in a statement.
Reaction within the indigenous community was mixed. While some on social media applauded the group's efforts, others remain skeptical the declaration will result in real change.
Hayden King, the director for the Centre of Indigenous Governance at Ryerson University in Toronto, said he wants to know what direct action the partnership will be involved in.
"People are concerned that we are going to be led down a path by this group which we've been led down before and which has not produced results."
King says he is encouraged by the inclusion of young indigenous leaders in the group but he questions how innovative this group will actually be.
"One of the things that people are really concerned about is we're talking about new politics and a new relationship but the people who are most vocal in this new organization are establishment people."
'A moment we have to seize'
Both Paul Martin and Mary Simon emphasized the role of timing in today's announcement. Martin said things have changed in recent years and Canadians are becoming more engaged in aboriginal issues.
"This is a moment we have to seize. We must embrace the notion of partnership fully," said Simon at the conference.
"Communities have forced Canadians to pay attention, they've forced the media to pay attention, they've forced politicians to pay attention. Native peoples themselves are the ones that have pushed these issues into the mainstream and are forcing the dialogue and in a way that I've never seen before," King said.
The new organization, which as been set up as a corporation, is receiving funding from private foundations, McGill University and the International Boreal Conservative campaign, according to the organization's website.
Among other activities, it intends to run speakers' bureau and a national lecture series.
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