Will Canadians be as generous to First Nations as they are to Syrian refugees?

As the governor general noted this week, Canadians have shown remarkable generosity towards Syrian refugees, in dealing with "the most marginalized among us." Will that same sentiment apply to First Nations in the push toward reconciliation, Chris Hall asks.

If we are talking the most marginalized and vulnerable, First Nations have to be included

Governor General David Johnston enjoys indigenous children performing during the new government's swearing-in ceremony in Ottawa on Nov. 4. (Blair Gable/Reuters)

Canadians' response to the Syrian refugee crisis continues to be remarkable, an outpouring of generosity and compassion for the 25,000 people the Trudeau government's committed to resettle.

Ordinary citizens have dug into their own pockets, lined up to sponsor families and donated useful, necessary items to families who will be arriving to face their first Canadian winter.

Some examples are especially powerful.

Like the Ontario business executive who is donating enough money to cover the first year of living expenses for 50 families. And the Montreal synagogue that raised $90,000 in a month to sponsor two families.

Governor General David Johnston called Canada's response to the refugee crisis a defining moment for the country earlier this week as he met with aid agencies and political, business and community leaders to discuss how to better coordinate the work of resettling 25,000 Syrians by February.

"This is a defining moment for Canada, a defining moment for all of us,'' he told the forum. "It's even more than that. It's an opportunity to reimagine how we take care of the most marginalized and vulnerable among us."

But does that sentiment extend beyond the imperatives of a current crisis?

Rethinking a historic relationship

Canadians are quick to donate to flood relief overseas, to victims of earthquakes and hurricanes.

But are they ready to reimagine how this country can respond to First Nations communities, many of them home to the most marginalized and vulnerable people inside Canada?

Cindy Blackstock isn't sure. She's the executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada.

As she sees it:"Canadians' imagination for what they can accomplish internationally is much sharper than it is for what they can do at home."

Cindy Blackstock, executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada, says "Canadians' imagination for what they can accomplish internationally is much sharper than it is for what they can do at home." (CBC)

There's no disputing the fact that more indigenous children are growing up in poverty in Canada than those in other groups. Or that more of them grow up without enough food, without the same access to health services and educational opportunity.

On its website, Canadian Feed the Children says one in 10 children grow up in poverty in Canada. For aboriginal children, the ratio is one in four.

Health Canada says that the health of aboriginal people, by nearly every measure, remains below that of the Canadian population as a whole.

Blackstock says numerous reports by the Auditor General, the Parliamentary Budget Officer and other government agencies have found that children on First Nations reserves receive fewer public services, including health, education and child welfare programs, than other communities.

Blaming First Nations for their problems

Yet the tendency, she says, is to blame First Nations for their own problems.

"It is a deeply embedded stereotype in Canada. No one is blaming the refugees for their circumstances. But when it comes to First Nations, the view is that it is our responsibility. That we are the ones who created all this."

Backing up her point: just this week the CBC suspended comments on stories about indigenous people and issues because they draw a disproportionate number of comments that violate the corporation's guidelines.

In their election platform, the Liberals committed to create a new, nation-to-nation relationship with indigenous peoples, one that would be based on recognition, rights, respect, co-operation and partnership.

That included implementing all the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

"I believe that reconciliation is not an aboriginal issue but a Canadian issue," Justin Trudeau said in a campaign speech this summer, when he set out his hope that "the quality of life gap between aboriginal and non-aboriginal people can be closed."

Can he and his government do it? In just a month in office, the Liberals have shown a willingness to confront the most difficult files.

Mjdi Mnaahe, his wife Wessam and their sons Tamim, 6, Saif, 4 and Mohammad, 1, (left to right) sit in their apartment Monday in Irbid, Jordan, waiting for approval to immigrate to Canada. (Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press)

These include climate change, where the government is committing itself to a plan to reduce emissions, as well as, of course, the promise to resettle 25,000 refugees that has galvanized ordinary Canadians across the country.

Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett told CBC Radio's The House last month that her goal is to have that renewed relationship with First Nations in place by the time Canada celebrates its 150th birthday in 2017.

"What we want is for the health, education and economic outcomes [for indigenous peoples] to be the same as Canadian averages."

But she conceded that Canadians have to be part of the solution.

Creating a strategic plan

The prime minister is to address indigenous leaders next week, when he's expected to announce his government's plan to hold a public inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women.

His office says he will set out a different narrative, emphasizing that aboriginal and non-aboriginal people have to walk forward together to address the disadvantages faced by indigenous people, stressing the importance of mutual respect and co-operation.

Blackstock says she hopes Trudeau will use the opportunity to set out a strategic plan for implementing the TRC recommendations, with targets and the money to reach them.

But she struggles with an answer when asked whether Canadians' response to the refugee crisis can translate into addressing the problems facing indigenous people.

"If we do this for Syrians, this outpouring of affection and generosity Canadians have shown, then let's step up to the plate at home. We need to embrace domestically what we so readily do internationally."


Chris Hall

National Affairs Editor

Chris Hall is the CBC's National Affairs Editor and host of The House on CBC Radio, based in the Parliamentary Bureau in Ottawa. He began his reporting career with the Ottawa Citizen, before moving to CBC Radio in 1992, where he worked as a national radio reporter in Toronto, Halifax and St. John's. He returned to Ottawa and the Hill in 1998.