"For true healing to occur, one must keep one eye on the past and one eye on the future," said Phil Fontaine, Grand Chief for the Assembly of First Nations, in a speech held here on October 27.
Canada's aboriginal people can expect much more in the next millennium, but first, all Canadians must look to the past to understand the injustices his people have suffered, many of them shattering. Federal and provincial governments have "indiscriminately violated" aboriginal rights, and "these unresolved abuses cry out for correction."
Correction has begun through various federal and provincial government apologies and offers of financial compensation. The recent British Columbia Nisga'a deal on land claims, self-government rights and a financial package of $190 million is one example, yet that deal is being fiercely opposed by the Reform Party, which argues the treaty infringes on the rights of other B.C. citizens.
"What they conveniently forget," Fontaine said, "is that others have imposed on us foreign values and systems based on the white race for centuries." To block this deal "would be a denial of Canada's true history."
Treaties and increased autonomy are the key to helping First Nations people prosper, Fontaine said, because the present system has made his people the most impoverished group in Canadian society. Widespread depression, alcoholism, hunger, unsanitary water, diabetes and inadequate health care are causing his people to live in Third World conditions.
He condemned a recent Globe and Mail article that contrasted the horrific living conditions on one reserve with how the reserve's native leaders chose to spend government subsidies. "We don't question the mayors of Toronto or Montreal about their homeless," he said. "We just accept it as being part of society."
He was also critical of Canadians who complain about the nearly $6 billion in government subsidies aboriginals receive every year. "Over 80 per cent of those funds, or $4.6 billion, leaves our communities and goes directly into white pockets so we may buy needed goods and services," he said. "Who benefits most from that?"
These complaints are outrageous when compared to the $10 billion the aerospace industry received in the last decade in interest-free government loans that were never repaid.
Improving life on reserves will only come by restructuring Canada's relationship with aboriginals through granting self-government. "We have the right to control our own destiny," Fontaine said. "This is the essence of our struggle."
First Nations people are no longer willing to be passive. "As is true with every revolution, when the disempowered start taking part, a new awareness is gained. Once that starts, there is no stopping it."
Increasing education among his people will hasten their independence. The number of aboriginal university graduates has climbed from 800 about 20 years ago to about 30,000, but there is still a desperate need to turn out more professionals. "Our future well-being lies in access to higher education."
Creating a lasting record of what happened between our ancestors, Fontaine added, "is the only way to ensure that such a travesty never occurs again."
Fontaine's speech was sponsored by Concordia's School of Community and Public Affairs.