Point of View

There is an election on, isn't it time we talked?

Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn Atleo on the native concerns that no one is talking about.

Guest column: National Chief Shawn Atleo on First Nation concerns

The reality for First Nations in Canada is that we suffer the poorest socio-economic conditions of all our fellow citizens.

A candidate in this election stated that there are no Third World conditions here.

My response: The rate of tuberculosis among First Nations is 31 times the national average. We suffer infant mortality rates that are three times the Canadian average, an education gap that will take over two decades to close and the realization that our children are more likely to end up in jail than to graduate from high school.

AFN National Chief Shawn Atleo acknowledges the House of Commons in December 2010. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

Hereditary Chief Shawn A-in-chut Atleo became the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations in July 2009, replacing long-time AFN leader Phil Fontaine. A former Regional Chief of the assembly for British Columbia, he is also chancellor of Vancouver Island University .

As I write this, 114 First Nation communities are living under boil water advisories.

I see this reality on a daily basis in my travels around the country. Recently I was speaking with a group of teenagers in Fort Qu'Appelle, Sask., when one boy said to me, "the rez is hard — it leaves you scarred."

Those words capture the fear and struggle of our people. It is a fear I have seen in the eyes of young parents struggling to deal with poverty as well as in our elderly fearing for their grandchildren.

It is a fear I see in our people living in cities where gangs are the only family and drugs the only escape.

Passing reference

We must overcome this fear. And to do this will require the attention, energy and action of all Canadians.

So it is troubling that there is so little discussion about our issues in this election, aside from a few media stories about racist, ignorant remarks on the part of some would-be candidates.

The only mention during the English language leaders' debate on Tuesday was a passing reference that First Nation priorities are not being addressed.

The AFN is working to raise the profile of these issues during this campaign. We have set out the facts and the priorities: affirmation, education, partnership and community safety.

Affirmation means moving forward on reconciliation, embracing the original relationships set out through treaties and implementing agreements.

These efforts are fundamental in affirming the right of First Nations to govern their affairs, be responsible and accountable to their citizens and to make the decisions that affect their daily lives.

It means resolving land claims so we create certainty for us and for business.

In this regard, the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is an important new road map and instructs us all to work in partnership and with respect.


Education is a second critical component of our agenda. Every year, funding for our students is subject to cutbacks and realignment.

Then prime minister Paul Martin, the provincial premiers and six major aboriginal leaders meet in Kelowna, B.C., in November 2005. The result, the $5 billion, multi-year Kelowna Accord to address native health and educational concerns, didn't survive the change in government. (Reuters)

On average, a child going to school on a reserve is funded at $2,000 less per year than students in public schools.

In some regions this inequity climbs to over $7,000 less per child. This is fundamentally unfair and unacceptable.

If we abandon another generation to poverty and despair we will only serve to increase social costs and lost potential.

In recent days, the Conservatives and Liberals were quick to commit to stable rates of growth for the provinces and territories for health, education and social costs at 6.6 per cent annual increase.

Yet for First Nations, funding for these same services has been capped at two per cent growth for more than a decade, despite the fact that we are the most rapidly growing population.

I challenge all parties to commit to the same growth rate and to closing the funding gap, thereby committing to fairness and hope for our young population.

We estimate that if we can close the education and labour-market gaps in one generation, First Nations will be able to generate $400 billion in additional output and save $115 billion in government expenditures.

A shared agenda

Our third priority is building and strengthening our economies.

There is growing entrepreneurialism among our peoples, across all sectors. If we engage upfront, prior to any outside development, and create relationships, then energy and resource development could be the new fur trade — an economic lever that lifts First Nations into prosperity while fostering positive engagement between us and other communities.

Our fourth priority is safety and community security.

We must commit ourselves as a society to ensure that every child has access to safe, clean drinking water; that every mother knows that medical attention is at hand should she or her baby fall ill; that every youth has somewhere to turn, someone to talk to in moments of despair.

Our communities suffer trauma too often and struggle without basic supports. We ask you, as neighbours, to help us rekindle our sense of community and extend a helping hand.

Our agenda requires action. Action that addresses the root causes of violence and despair. Action that shows our people that there is fairness. Action that keeps our families safe and our children in school.

All of Canada has a tremendous and shared stake in this agenda.

We have a dynamic, young and rapidly growing population at a time when the rest of Canada is aging.

There is tremendous potential in this but — let's be clear — there are also serious negative consequences to inaction. There is anger. There is frustration. And rightfully so.

It is imperative, then, that just as our collective ancestors did in the time of treaty making, we commit to working together, to demonstrate our ability to respect one another and find the path forward.

We can shape the future. We can heal the scars of that young man in Fort Qu'Appelle.We can light the path to a better tomorrow. But we must start now.