National Chief Shawn A-in-chut Atleo:
Thank you very much.
I think the place to begin, really, is to establish some context and to describe my presentation and intervention about seeking to really transform the work, the relationship, based on a shared vision that first nations would set out alongside Canada.
We know, I think, especially in a committee like this, what our current reality is, and the sorts of trends we're facing with the first nations population being very young and growing rapidly, but not being very well educated overall, I would think, particularly in relation to the rest of Canada. First nations also face a shortage of paid work, with unemployment rates as high as 80% in many of our communities.
Also, the chronic health conditions that our people face are really not seen anywhere else in the country. Tuberculosis is at eight to ten times the rate of the rest of the Canadian population. Diabetes is at three times the rate of the rest of Canada.
Our people face deep fiscal and structural challenges that really reflect the antiquated Indian Act constraints. This covers the full policy spectrum, including social, housing, infrastructure, and our needs in the area of health.
We first nations have an increasing need and desire to create new structures, new authorities, and new ways of doing business independently and in partnership with other levels of government, with industry and, as I've just articulated, in fact, with countries around the world, based on the notion that treaties in their very essence are also international in scope, many having been forged before Canada was even formed.
Our current relationship is one that I think strikes us all and, in particular, is important in this conversation. It has been characterized by a long history of deep mistrust between first nations and government and a sense of interference with our rights and on our treaties. We have an outdated legislative framework that we've all inherited, which inhibits progress and growth. We have increased fiscal pressures on first nations governments, resulting from demographic challenges and discretionary approaches to funding, and this is paired with current federal strategic and operational reviews.
However, we can point out a number of important moments, the first of which, in the summer of 2008, was the Prime Minister's apology for Indian residential schools, signalling a new approach. We can look to Canada's 2010 endorsement of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, setting out key parameters requiring mutual respect and partnership, and further, we can now add approaches such as those set out in the joint action plan as holding much potential to begin a new approach based on collaboration and mutual priorities.
We have as well, as we all know, multiple studies and reports going back over a long period of time now, such as the 1981 Penner report, the 1996 Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples report, and, most recently, the good work of our most recent and outgoing Auditor General in the spring of 2011, the report reflecting 10 years of recommendations, the report finding that conditions have not improved for first nations in the areas that were examined and, in many cases, are getting worse.
The Auditor General identified structural impediments that severely limit the delivery of public services to first nations and hinder improvements in living conditions, and specifically outlined a lack of clarity about service levels, a lack of a legislative base, a lack of appropriate funding mechanisms, and a lack of organizations to support local service delivery.
I think this outlines briefly the context we find ourselves in.
So first nations have a very ambitious agenda for change in the active pursuit of self-determination, and first nations governments are seeking true responsibility for the decisions that affect their lives. I want to outline an action plan on four key elements. First is the first nations-crown relationship; second is the implementation of first nations governments; third is fiscal relationships; and last is structural change.
Speaking to the first area, advancing the first nations-crown relationship means making progress through steps such as the proposed gathering for first nations and the crown, which we have been pursuing as an opportunity to truly reset the relationship and put it back on its original foundation. We are still working on the idea of that happening sometime this winter.
Second, we need new fiscal relationships to guarantee and deliver sustainable, equitable services that are based on—and this is really crucial—mutually agreed-to standards.
Third is the implementation of first nations governments: building our own institutions, doing our own planning, and working on accountability mechanisms that will truly deliver accountability, particularly to first nations citizens.
Last is structural change. What we're talking about here is machinery of government changes that affirm the relationship, uphold responsibility, and increase service standards, responsibility, and mutual accountability.
We're talking here about that first nations-crown gathering and the idea of resetting the relationship. I think it could be characterized as a real tinkering with the relationship, through Indian Act changes, to move to a much more comprehensive approach that we jointly carry out.
The way forward, as we would suggest, is one that moves from constraints and imposed control to respect, recognition, and support. We move from models of dependency and ad hoc and unreliable allocations to sustainable funding for basic services. We move away from unilateral delegation to shared accountability among jurisdictions, and we develop accepted standards.
On stability and safety, we are particularly concerned about the fact that many first nations remain critically vulnerable. New financial mechanisms are needed immediately to invest in and stabilize basic first nations needs for safe water, housing, and services for children and families. We see these issues on a daily basis.
I'll reflect back to the committee reports from Manitoba about concerns about communities that are going to see another year pass before they see their basic water needs met. Those are examples of why it feels that we lurch from crisis to crisis without really having the ability get out in front and plan proactively for the long-term solutions communities need.
How we do this becomes the question: how can we more effectively work together?
Many previous legislative approaches, as I've alluded to, have not reflected first nations priorities and aspirations. This results in conflict due to a failure to engage in a respectful process, as opposed to focusing on the content itself. It's about the content, but it's also about how we do the work. We're saying that, based on treaties and the nation-to-nation relationship, it becomes about us doing this work together.
The AFN has long advanced the need for principled partnership on any legislation to achieve change for first nations. It would include unique elements, including advancing the discussion on scope and intent, open information sharing, and joint drafting and development--I can point most recently to the work on the Specific Claims Tribunal Act as one example of a joint legislative effort--and agreed-to processes for decision-making and conflict resolution.
I want to focus on a really top priority for first nations, and that is education. I feel strongly that we have an opportunity, should we so choose, to get this right at this time in history. For us to be successful, it will require, as I said to you earlier, elements such as new machinery, new systems, and new fiscal arrangements. We need action through commitment and collaboration.
It's not restricted to the K to 12 area. We also have to bring a focus to post-secondary education. We require increased opportunity, investment, and reinforcement of the role of communities in nurturing and supporting students so that they succeed.
I believe that the apology of 2008 suggests that we've entered a new era of reconciliation that calls for action that gives effect to reconciliation. It requires investment in schools, with programming and new approaches grounded in first nations culture. If the residential schools sought to take away language, culture, and the connection with the heritage of first nations, then education should include these areas. It should include language programming, connection with the culture, and other areas that are not included right now, such as youth sports and youth recreation.
The work we do here together, and your work, can support the way forward and help us move past structural barriers or points of dissent through strategic study or review of key topics.
There are some important related areas I wanted to touch on very briefly.
First is the idea of acting jointly with the justice and human rights committee and the status of women committee to look at violence against indigenous women and girls, as well as working with indigenous women and leaders on a national action plan that will bring clear focus and attention to this issue. This remains a top priority for first nations. At the Council of the Federation, all the premiers joined first nations in bringing focus and attention to this area as a priority.
The second area is to examine reciprocal accountability mechanisms and the development of standards, capacity, and institutional supports, such as a first nations ombudsperson, an independent officer of Parliament, and/or an Auditor General--a first nations auditor general function. Think about the innumerable disputes that arise. We have no such structures in place at this time. These are not new suggestions; they have been around for a while.
Third, there is the area of responding proactively to address barriers to unlock first nations economic potential, such as streamlining policies related to additions to reserve and advancing resolution of land rights above the current limit of $150 million. This was one of the outstanding challenges in the Specific Claims Tribunal Act: claims over $150 million. I think some important work is happening in that area.
On this third piece about unleashing the economic potential, there are not only the specific claims but also the comprehensive claims, the negotiations that are happening in many parts of the country, which I know the regional chief could speak to about in the B.C. context as well, and there is the need for us to ensure that we move much more quickly to resolve the land issue between first nations and Canada.
By way of some concluding thoughts, when growing up, I was always reminded that when it came to challenges, there was the hard way or the harder way. It's already difficult, and it's already tough work, for us to accomplish jointly responding to this work. It's already difficult to overcome the partisanship that can flow into our work at times, but working separately is going to make this much tougher.
We must find a way forward at this juncture in history. This can happen only if we truly have an open and honest dialogue and if we share a mutual responsibility, as well as the determination to get through the very difficult issues.
I believe that the harder way--not finding a way--will adversely impact Canada's competitiveness. First nations are poised to make incredible economic contributions to the current and future life of this country. We demonstrated this by travelling to a place like China, which is seeking the rich natural resources of our land. First nations are poised to participate economically and unleash the human potential of our growing youth population, so this is about seeking a conversation with you to pursue a principled approach to some practical solutions for us to work together to achieve the promise and the potential of true treaty partnership.
I very much want to express my appreciation for your role in this work to forge all-party consensus on key priorities and to streamline approvals in areas like first nations claims and agreements. I suggest to you that we can achieve a much greater and much more rapid rate of change between first nations and Canada and in the lives of first nations peoples if we collectively choose that this is the moment for us to do so.
I thank you again for inviting us to appear before you.
Those are my opening thoughts, Mr. Chair.
National Chief Shawn A-in-chut Atleo:
Thank you for that.
What's really appreciated is that there is a shared notion that education is a top priority. If we are to close the education and the labour market gap in one generation, this could result in a contribution to Canada's economy of about $400 billion and in reduced government expenditure of about $115 billion. So we should make no mistake: where we have been failing, we can no longer afford to fail, and particularly in relation to the potential of our young learners.
The panel is focused on K to 12. There's a number of reasons for that, but it should be emphasized that it is only a door through which we walk together to examine the full spectrum of education. Our young people are underfunded by an amount of anywhere from $2,000 to $7,000 per child in their education. There are historic reasons for that.
The panel is really important. It's reaching out to communities and to first nations chiefs and councils. It's reaching out to the grassroots of the community—the educators, the front-line workers, the principals, the students, and the parents—to talk about engaging them in the educational future of their young people.
It's also an effort that is important in this respect: that the report is coming back both to the Assembly of First Nations and to the government through the minister. It's coming back to both parties, as opposed to only going back to government. This is an important step for us because it reflects the potential of the way forward: that not only do we jointly examine and understand the current issues, but we jointly determine the way forward.
We would only do so once we have received the report, which we expect this winter, and we would hope then to jointly determine what that way forward would be. I have already alluded to the aspiration that we create a way forward that reflects and respects the autonomy the regional chief spoke about, such that in the end, every young person in this country knows that we as a country and we as leaders--who are sent to serve them and serve their needs--care about them.
Right now, they don't know that. I end up in these communities getting off at dirt airstrips with kids holding up signs that say, “I just want a school”, or “I just want a playground”, or “I need materials for my school”, or “I want to learn my language”.
I think the panel holds tremendous promise. I've been very thankful that every region from coast to coast to coast is engaging with the panel. Those voices are being heard.
To go back to the earlier questions, once that report comes back to the Assembly of First Nations, the Assembly of First Nations then joins the government in a facilitative role to work with first nations governments to determine what the next steps are, what the way forward is. I'm encouraged that we're getting this work done and I am encouraged that we're doing this work together.
Mr. Greg Rickford (Kenora, CPC):
Thank you, National Chief.
Jody, it's nice to see you here again today, and it's nice to see you, Jennifer. Thank you for coming here today.
National Chief, in listening to some of the other questions, I understand the challenges fully and completely. In a previous life, of course, I spent almost a decade living and working in isolated first nations communities. That would be 12 to 15 years ago. Many of the things we're talking about, like safe drinking water and critical infrastructure as such, are long-standing challenges for us, and I think it is high time that we move forward on this.
Chief, just briefly by way of introduction, we've now had a couple of occasions to be together at the Penticton school--a marvellous facility, of course--and at the AFN breakfast recently. We met about an exciting student mentor program with a private sector company that I understand is introducing some very sophisticated and complex business processes to at least a couple of younger first nations people.
I think that's great news, because it speaks to what you have certainly delivered on in your time, and that is the importance of partnerships: relationships with governments across jurisdictions and, of course, with the private sector. I know that in the great Kenora riding a lot of our successes, I've always said, hinge on the ability of our first nations to participate in major forest management plans and major mining activities, and of course what goes with that, importantly, is training, not just in the K to 12 context, but certainly in the post-secondary context.
Chief, to that end, I want to spend a little bit of time on something that you mentioned in your speech. It's with respect to chapter 4 of the Auditor General's report of June 2011.
The Auditor General rightly identified a number of long-standing structural impediments that have severely limited the delivery of public services to first nations communities and that hinder living conditions on reserve. It highlighted that the federal government alone cannot address these impediments, and that first nations have an important role to play. So that in addition to stable funding, the Auditor General pointed out, inter alia, of course, that there was a need for a legislative base for programs, enforceable standards, and a greater capacity for service delivery at the community level.
Indeed, today you said that you're concerned about some outdated legislative frameworks that may be part of that impediment. I would submit respectively that we do have some exciting legislation that in fact may not be ad hoc per se. Things like the First Nations Land Management Act are doing some great things for a number of communities, particularly in the province of British Columbia.
Summarily speaking, do you agree with this perspective, or this take-away, if you will, from the Auditor General's report? If so, how can the AFN specifically, and first nations community leadership, given your own appreciable background, become more engaged to bring about these changes?
National Chief Shawn A-in-chut Atleo:
Thank you very much.
On the AG's mention of legislation, I think what we're finding in our reaching out to Canadians.... We are finding a tremendous positive response, and not only from the corporate or business sector. New partnerships are emerging. There is wonderful support from civil society: NGOs, colleges, school districts, etc. What many people find quite shocking, in some respects, is that first nations, unlike what many people perceive or believe, are the only segment of the Canadian population without a statutory guarantee for funding for education.
As my colleague would remind me, we're really talking about the rights of individuals, rights that most Canadians enjoy and that first nations don't have any way of realizing. We don't have a statutory or legislative foundation for things such as education for our young people, so there would be a need to discuss how to achieve that.
Having said that, and to come back to my earlier point about how we achieve this, from my perspective, it would only be accomplished through a joint effort, because we're talking about the treaty right to education. This is about jurisdictions recognizing each other. How do we accomplish that? First nations understand that the Government of Canada operates, receives, and gives instruction through legislation, and that this would be a way to achieve a statutory guarantee on the part of governments.
So I want to make an important differentiation here: that first nations rights are, as I said much earlier, international in scope; that they are acknowledged and recognized in the Canadian Constitution; and that we have the UN declaration. When Canada endorsed that declaration, I suggested to the Government of Canada that we could see the UN declaration as somewhat of an agenda. It says in it that first nations indigenous peoples must be involved in designing an education system that works for them, involved in designing a system of health that works for them.... This, in my view, can be accomplished if we do so jointly.
But I didn't want to lose sight of your earlier point around the partnerships. In fact, on the trip to China, one of the aspects we were discussing was that the chiefs, this last summer in assembly, supported the notion of developing a national virtual institute on energy and mining, something that would support first nations taking a real leadership role, and not necessarily just in those areas, because forestry is also a part of the energy sector.
It's really about the fact that there is around $400 billion in natural resource projects in this country for which first nations will have a direct say. It makes sense to support their capacity, to support first nations in doing what they have the responsibility to do, and that is to take a leadership role.
I wanted to suggest on the legislative question that we could really set the agenda through a first nations-crown gathering to facilitate broader engagement amongst first nations across the country, so that we can get moving on a much more forward-looking, comprehensive approach.
National Chief Shawn A-in-chut Atleo:
I'll work backwards from your last question because, through expanding procurement both directly with government and through major contracts, I think this committee and government can facilitate the direct involvement of first nations. I wanted to begin with a practical aspect of your question.
In some provinces, we see this happening more, but I think there is a lot of room for growth. Government can play a direct and active role in facilitating procurement and involving first nations on the contracting side. I know there's some good work happening there.
But I'll come back to your first and biggest question, the question around sustainable development. As we hear first nations say, first nations are not opposed to development. They're just not supportive of development at any cost. This means that the values of first nations, that... In my language we use the phrase “Hishuk ish tsawalk”: we are all one and interconnected. We are connected and embedded in the lands and in the environment around us.
First nations feel very acutely an imbalance that has arisen, whether it's due to dwindling clean water supplies or the climate change impacts that first nations--especially throughout the north--talk about. We see climate change impacts in the territories that I come from and that the regional chief comes from on Vancouver Island. We know that our fishing stocks have been impacted, both through climate change and through such things as clear-cut logging over the course of history, which decimated the fish stocks in my own home territory.
So first nations that I see on the land are giving expression through green energy projects, for example, and changing forestry systems. Forestry was mentioned earlier: why couldn't Canada end up with some strong branding? We do forestry in a sustainable manner, where indigenous peoples are directly involved in having a much lighter footprint on the earth, where we're doing much more with the resources we have available to us.
I will mention again that the earlier questions around consultation and accommodation impact here: engage early and engage often with first nations. I know that many major projects are 25 or 50 years in the making, and that a major mine might change hands from companies that front the project, making it very difficult to establish relationships. Well, with first nations, it's very important that those relationships be established early, and that you build trust, because trust is something that has been lacking in the relationship between first nations and industry, as well as in the relationship between first nations and government.
Through these new partnerships, we see impact benefit agreements and we see increased revenue-sharing agreements being developed. We can learn from the good examples that are being created.
Finally, to your question, I believe that first nations are now prepared in major areas such as energy. We know that this country does not have a comprehensive national plan for energy. We know that we don't have a North American comprehensive plan for energy. Well, first nations will step into a leadership role, and we will help shape the future of our relationship with natural resources, including non-renewables such as oil and gas.
We're prepared to take on that role. We suggest that we can do it in a way of real partnership, whereby we will generate sustainable economies that create new jobs in communities, but we will also take a leading role in areas such as the green economy and will suggest alternatives. We realize that we are going to need non-renewables; we're going to need fossil fuels. That's a part of our life right now, but how can we move away from dependence on those so that we can return to a greater sense of balance between first nations and the living environment around us?
I appreciate that question.
National Chief Shawn A-in-chut Atleo:
Thank you, Mr. Chair.
Accountability is really critical and I know that we as first nations reflect on our history of accountability. Previous to the new structure--such as the Indian Act--coming in, we can point to much more direct accountability mechanisms that were directly between first nations governments and their citizens. The Indian Act, something we all inherited, changed that dynamic, creating accountability mechanisms between first nations and the Minister of Indian Affairs.
I think there's a shared notion that we need to put back in place proper accountability mechanisms between first nations governments and their citizens. In this way, first nations leaders and governments are very much taking a lead. They are demonstrating leadership in this area.
The AFN unanimously passed a resolution reaffirming their commitment to maintaining transparent and accountable decision-making structures in first nations communities. The notion of true accountability goes much further than reporting on funds or disclosing salaries.
The outgoing Auditor General also reflected on the challenges that I was referring to in the Indian Act relationship between first nations and governments: that the Government of Canada needs to be accountable to first nations for how it discharges its responsibility to first nations and for the outcomes of its actions. This is the reason for the structural suggestions that we move to a first nations auditor general concept: so that we can bring in some independence and essentially mirror an effective mechanism like that of an auditor general, but also have something for first nations specifically.
As well, we suggest a first nations ombudsperson concept. We don't have that. The Assembly of First Nations often has people coming to us around disputes that may arise, but I don't have that authority or that responsibility. First nations have been saying for a long time that they are prepared to work with government to establish such a mechanism as an ombudsperson. These mechanisms can provide oversight, ensure that funding policies and programs are truly working for first nations governments and their citizens, and achieve the change that we can all agree to.
The concluding point is that we've all inherited a system that in the end does not offer true accountability. The bureaucracy has been growing, with innumerable people chasing reports that don't end up being read. That's what the Auditor General said, not what I've said.
So I think we do need to achieve a much higher level of efficiency, but I come back to my earlier point: the theme needs to be about seeing each other's jurisdiction and about jointly designing a way forward, with the first nation-crown gathering being the kind of place where we can agree.
Let's hit the reset button. Let's agree to a plan of action that will change this, as opposed to doing a long string of one-offs that in the end don't really deliver true accountability.
National Chief Shawn A-in-chut Atleo:
First I have a couple of comments. I'll respond to those comments in the context of the role of the Assembly of First Nations, which is to serve and support first nations.
It was mentioned earlier that this committee has had representations from a number of groups. I think I heard Inuit being mentioned, and I'm sure Métis groups have come in. So there have been representations from the three distinct indigenous peoples recognized in the Constitution: first nations, Inuit, and Métis.
The three national organizations talk a lot. We talk a lot about the fact that as indigenous peoples collectively, first nations, Inuit, and Métis also flow between the rural and the urban settings, that the term “aboriginal” in fact encompasses all three, and it would be important to speak to the Métis and the Inuit about their urban aboriginal population.
In the Assembly of First Nations, we have has strong relationships with those who provide services in the urban settings. When I came to office, we launched a portfolio area focusing on an urban strategy, recognizing the importance of service delivery.
The response, though, is not disconnected from this conversation so far. The decisions to be away from home are many, and they're complex. They link with externally imposed divisions that include the residential school system, the lack of clean drinking water, the fact that we need 40 schools, and that there isn't housing in the villages. So it's not disconnected from this discussion: the reasons for people being away from home are very often also connected.
First nations also feel strongly about supporting the choice of first nations about where to reside, and right now that choice is limited on first nations reserve lands. For the Assembly of First Nations, our role and responsibility is to support first nation citizens wherever they reside. We work with groups such as the Friendship Centres, which have provided important historic supports for communities.
What we don't want to see is conflict or competition between people for what are already, as you rightly pointed out, resources that are limited. But when times were good, when the resources were there, first nations didn't see a shift in funding. The 2% cap has been around since 1996, and the Auditor General reflected on a full 10 years: the reflection was that the gap was deepening. This, then, becomes about how we ensure that all first nations are going to be supported going forward.
First nations governments have a principal responsibility to support their citizens, and it's to them that I would look for instructions on how we support their citizens wherever they reside. Many of the challenges are to ensure that first nations governments are supported to build their capacity and be as effective as possible, and to ensure that they have the resources available to support their citizens.
Post-secondary education is a good example, regardless of whether you're at home or in the urban setting. Are the resources going to be there to support success in the area of post-secondary education? We're hearing in many instances that communities unfortunately are not able to support their citizens. This is a good example of needing to ensure that we have full support for citizens wherever they reside.
National Chief Shawn A-in-chut Atleo:
I think wherever first nations are agreeing to and driving those initiatives and those agreements, they are most welcome.
There are outstanding issues of the relationships. Jordan's Principle was mentioned earlier, recalling a child who in fact died because of the lack of clarity about how the jurisdictions are going to--and should be--working together and supporting one another.
I begin, though, again by going back to the original point; that the principal relationship is one, firstly, between first nations and the crown. That's the reason for pursuing a first nations-crown gathering: to have a meeting with the federal government and to reset the relationship there.
The second point, and maybe the next step, would be then to consider the relationship among first nations, the crown, and provincial and/or territorial governments, but only as driven by first nations. What first nations are not welcoming of is the imposition of an approach. That includes the imposition of tripartite arrangements. Those areas in which first nations are choosing, though, we can see quite clearly in the examples you've described.
Great progress has been made, and it allows for the opportunity to address what the relationship is between the different jurisdictions. The principal relationship between first nations is with the crown on the education piece; we need to work that out. But then the next step would be what the relationship is between a provincial education system and.... It may not be a tripartite arrangement, but wouldn't any of us want to make sure that our children, if we choose to leave jurisdictions, would have equitable support for their education success if they were to move between a provincial and a first nations school?
Those are the sorts of practical issues that need to be worked out. But my interest is to reflect the fact that there is a basic foundational first nations-federal crown relationship that we need to address. Then the next step is to look to the first nations for instructions about how they see the next piece of this being worked out.
It's not to suggest that one size fits all or that only a single tripartite model should be implemented and/or imposed, but to suggest that we should be open to the idea that we first reset the first nations-federal crown relationship, and then ask the question about what the relationship is across the whole policy spectrum. In every area we can then ask what the relationship piece is that needs to be addressed with the provincial level as well.