Living conditions for natives still shameful, Ottawa admits
Tuesday, February 3 2004
OTTAWA -- Calling conditions in Canada's native communities "shameful," Prime Minister Paul Martin promised yesterday to improve the lives of natives.
"Aboriginal Canadians have not fully shared in our nation's good fortune," said Governor-General Adrienne Clarkson, who delivered Mr. Martin's first Throne Speech in the Senate.
"While some progress has been made, the conditions in far too many aboriginal communities can only be described as shameful. This offends our values. It is in our collective interest to turn the corner. And we must start now."
The speech announced that the federal government will establish an independent Centre for First Nations Government to address concerns about fiscal and electoral accountability on more than 600 of the country's reserves. He also said safeguarding Canadians from health concerns such as contaminated water -- a big problem on some reserves -- is a "top priority" of the government.
Earlier this year, the Liberal government announced it would scrap an unpopular bill introduced under former prime minister Jean Chrétien. The legislation, which would have amended the Indian Act, angered native leaders and sparked protests.
The National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, Phil Fontaine, applauded the government for taking a more conciliatory approach.
"Imposed change does not work," he said. "A far better way is to put the onus on where it has ought to be all along, on us. The very strong resistance we witnessed had to do with the imposition of will on the government."
He also credited Mr. Martin for admitting that conditions in native communities are "shameful."
"What we heard today in the Throne Speech gives me cause to be optimistic."
Mr. Martin has already established a cabinet committee on aboriginal affairs and pledged yesterday to improve education and economic opportunities for natives.
"When the Governor-General actually admits on behalf of the federal government that the treatment of aboriginal people is shameful, then obviously they have to do something about it," said Jose Kusugak of Inuit Advocacy in Canada.
The government also vowed to engage other levels of government and Métis leaders on the place of the Métis in its policies.
"It's been a very long time since the Métis have been mentioned in the Throne Speech," said Métis National Council President Clement Chartier. "I think it's almost been 20 years. I believe that mentioning Métis in the Throne Speech by Mr. Martin was signalling a new era for the Métis."
Last year, the Supreme Court of Canada recognized the rights of the country's estimated 300,000 Métis under Section 35 of the Constitution Act of 1982.
Globe and Mail
By KIM LUNMAN
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