Caribbean solidarity with First Nations

Like all Canadian citizens and residents, members of the Caribbean diaspora have solid grounds for showing solidarity with the First Nations. We can support their right to justice and equity because those two principles are also the basis of our own aspirations.

In the shared context of centuries of European expansionism and colonization here in the Americas and elsewhere, we can also support their claims to the rights accruing to them from valid treaties, international law and any relevant Canadian laws, regulations, programs and projects.

Our traditional attachment to the ethical and moral concept of natural justice demands that we take note of some stark facts. Aboriginals account for 4% of our national population and the social and economic conditions in which they live are generally among the most deplorable in the whole country.

Consider a key indicator such as education. Ten percent of non-aboriginal Canadians aged 20-24 failed to graduate from high school. For Metis Canadians the corresponding figure is 20%. For off-reserve Indians the percentage is higher, at 30%. And in 2011, 58% of on-reserve Indians did not graduate from high school.

How is it possible that 23% of the inmates in our federal prisons are Indians when their percentage of our country’s population is just 4%? In 2010-11, in our federal, provincial and territorial prisons, 25% of the males and a shocking 41% of the females serving sentences were aboriginals!

One more scandalous statistic has been in the news lately: 16% of Canada’s female murder victims and 12% of missing women and girls are Native women.

We recognize that there have been some positive developments.

Two recent decisions of our Supreme Court are significant steps forward. In June 2014 the court recognized the validity of the title to traditional territory claimed by the Tsilhqot’in First Nation of British Columbia. The earlier decision against the Grassy Narrows First Nation in January 2014 denied their challenge of the provincial government of Ontario’s authority to grant licences for exploitation of forestry resources in the territory under consideration. But this latter decision also strengthened aboriginal rights to consultation in advance and compensatory measures when their rights are affected by the granting and exploitation of commercial licences.

Another positive development was the recent decision of former premier and MP Bob Rae to resign from Parliament and to assume a leadership role in assisting the First Nations of Northern Ontario in the major legal and other issues involved in the commercialization of the natural resources in the Ring of Fire.

But the most important corrective mechanism is yet to come. It is time Canadians accept some uncomfortable truths beyond the fact there are no quick, easy solutions. First Nation issues cannot be properly addressed by unco-ordinated measures. Judicial measures are not in themselves adequate to the task either.

What is required is a mechanism to identify, categorize and recommend a structured national agenda to address Canada’s aboriginal peoples’ needs and interests. This has to be a permanent, non-partisan institution that includes in its board of directors non-political representatives of all three levels of government, the First Nations, as well as a significant number of independent persons appointed in their individual capacities.

Canada cannot escape its responsibility to set up such a permanent mechanism endowed with the appropriate mandate, the funding, and the staff to manage on an ongoing basis this massive, centuries-old package of challenges.