Living conditions for First Nations 'unacceptable': Fontaine

First Nations people in Canada live in Third World conditions, with a lack of access to clean water and decent housing, the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations said Tuesday.

First Nations people in Canada live in "Third World" conditions, with a lack of access to clean water and decent housing, the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations said Tuesday.

"We rank no better than a Third World country, and that is simply unacceptable. There is no good reason why our people should be as poor as they are," Phil Fontaine said in Toronto.

In a keynote address at an assembly National Housing and Water Policy Forum, Fontaine said there is no question that the federal government must spend more money to address the serious problems in First Nations communities.

Fontaine said problems include unsafe drinking water, crowded homes, high unemployment, high suicide rates, limited access to quality health care, and thousands of children being looked after by provincial child-welfare authorities.

There are boil water advisories on more than 100 reserves, with about 35 communities in crisis over lack of access to clean drinking water. As well, on average, there are more than four people in every First Nations home, Fontaine said.

"When we start talking about the many crisis situations that exist in our communities, the response is usually: more money is not the answer," he said. "We all know more money is needed."

Fontaine said the government has made millions available to upgrade military equipment for the Armed Forces and to correct a perceived fiscal imbalance among some provinces.

If the federal government wants to make money the answer to problems, it clearly can, he said.

"The health of our people relies on clean water, clean air and healthy homes," he said.

Fontaine acknowledged, however,that First Nations people must help to find the solutions to existing problems by working with government officials and business leaders.

"It is all up to us. We must do it. We must create the solutions ourselves. Our community must decide on our future. We must work together to fix the system that has produced the results that we are living today," he said.

"We want to be real contributors to Canada's prosperity. We never ever wanted to be dependent on someone else. Any suggestion that we are happy with our current situation is so completely wrong."

Despair leads to suicide

John Beaucage, grand council chief of the Anishinabek Nation, which includes 42 First Nations communities in northern Ontario, told CBC News on Tuesday that the poverty leaves young people on reserves with a sense of despair.

"This despair is resulting from poor housing, where there may be four or five families living in one house that has three bedrooms and they take turns sleeping on the beds at night," he said.

"It's a situation where they are unsure of their drinking water supply and that drinking water could have E. coli or other kinds of bacteria. I think probably the most disturbing thing is this despair often leads these young people even to contemplate suicide.

"The suicide rates in northern communities are astronomical. They are crisis in proportion," Beaucage said.

Fontaine told reporters after his speech that the northern Ontario community of Kashechewan, which was evacuated in 2005 because of contaminated drinking water, is one community where suicide is a huge problem.

According to media reports, as many as 21 people between the ages of nine and 23 tried to commit suicide last month. Fontaine said "urgent action" is needed in the community.

Beaucage said the three-day forum in Toronto will give First Nations leaders a chance to pool ideas on how to improve housing and bring clean water to their communities.

"We want to target the communities at greatest risk," he said.

Beaucage said the government has a role to play in solving the problems of First Nations but it must respect their right to govern themselves.

"We are just moving into a position where we are able to do the work ourselves and we are saying to the federal government, stand out of the way, let us do it."

Human rights complaint

Fontaine said Monday the assembly is planning to file a human rights complaint against the federal government because, the assembly alleges, Ottawa is underfunding aboriginal child-welfare services.

One in 10 aboriginal children is in foster care, compared with one in 200 non-aboriginal children. According to the assembly, child welfare agencies for First Nations receive 22 per cent less money than those that deal with non-aboriginal children.

After the Harper government took office last year, it scrapped a $5.1-billion aboriginal spending plan worked out by the previous Liberal government at a first ministers meeting in Kelowna, B.C.

Known as the Kelowna accord, it promised to improve the social and economic conditions of aboriginal people.

Fontaine said the government needs to look at how much it spends on First Nations every fiscal year because aboriginal people are the fastest growing segment of the Canadian population.

"It's a complete misrepresentation to argue that First Nations have too much money, or enough money," Fontaine said. "We all know the opposite to be true."

The assembly describes itself as the national representative organization of the First Nations in Canada. Canada has more than 630 First Nations communities and about 756,700 First Nations people.