Summit called first step to dismantling Indian Act
Tuesday, April 20 2004
Cabinet ministers meet aboriginals
North's Inuit get secretariat in Ottawa
Toronto Star - April 20, 2004
OTTAWA—Prime Minister Paul Martin said yesterday's meeting between native and government leaders will be remembered as an historic first step toward the eventual dismantling of the Indian Act and the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development.
Speaking after what he called an "extraordinary" summit between about 70 native leaders and government, including some 20 cabinet ministers, Martin said native self-government is the eventual goal but, in the meantime, the Indian Act will have to be amended.
Martin promised a new era of collaboration and said aboriginals will have a seat at the table in discussions about their future. "In the years to come, other nations are going to look at us and say that, indeed, we did rise to the challenge and we've recognized the opportunities."
Martin said the government will now:
Write a report on the summit;
Convene a meeting between the Cabinet Committee on Aboriginal Affairs and native leaders to devise a course of action;
Arrange roundtable discussions among individual ministers and aboriginal experts, provincial and territorial leaders and the private sector about developing goals.
Annually release a government report card "to tell us and all Canadians how we're doing, what progress we're making and where we simply have to do better if we are to deliver our objective of closing the gap of living conditions for aboriginal Canadians."
Martin was vague about whether the meetings aboriginal leaders are to attend would include first ministers' conferences. In the past, they have been excluded from such summits.
Assembly of First Nations Chief Phil Fontaine, who said aboriginal leaders should attend every process affecting aboriginals, applauded the Prime Minister's plan. "This has certainly been much more than a photo-op," he said.
"The Indian Act was designed to eradicate any sense of Indian-ness in the country, to eliminate our people, and I don't see one good reason why we should keep the Department of Indian Affairs, as it is today."`"I don't see one good reason why we should keep the Department of Indian Affairs, as it is today.'
Phil Fontaine, national chief
Speaking to the summit, Denis Coderre, Federal Interlocutor for Métis and Non-Status Indians, said it is time to answer the Métis people's call for the government to offer some form of redress to Louis Riel, whom Coderre called a "great nation-builder."
"For some, he remains a controversial figure. For others, he stands as the first fighter for Métis rights ... a true champion. But, however he is viewed, from a political or legal perspective, there can be no denying the strengths of his convictions and the deep pride he generated among the Métis."
Indian and Northern Affairs Minister Andy Mitchell told the summit the government is prepared to fund a housing secretariat through the Assembly of First Nations.
Mitchell said the government also might consider aboriginal school boards and stressed the need for the government to work with aboriginal communities on developing programs to help retain young people in post-secondary education.
Too often young aboriginals cannot adjust to moving from their small, rural communities to study in larger centres, Mitchell said.
Martin announced the creation of an Inuit Secretariat within Indian and Northern Affairs Canada.
Jose Kusugak, president of the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, said the Inuit have long called for it.
Paul Kaludjak, director and president of Nunavut Tunngavik Inc., which concerns itself with land claim agreements in Nunavut, said the secretariat is "good news.
"Many times our requests seem to get lost in the whole system and now we have like a one-window shopping: a person we can go to now to voice some of our concerns on the implementation state of our land claims and get it addressed through the system, now quicker, I hope."
Russell Diabo, a Mohawk from Kahnawake, Que., applauded Martin's willingness to talk, in contrast with his predecessor Jean Chrétien, but said Martin was focusing too much on programs and services and not enough on rights.
"Maybe there will be some more houses built, maybe there will be some more money to build some schools, maybe some curriculum development, but ... without lands and resources and some clear recognition of inherent authority or sovereignty — some degree of sovereignty internally within aboriginal groups, the freedom to make decisions and mistakes — you're not going to see those changes to solve those other problems."
He also said Martin should not ignore the 440 recommendations by the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples.
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