Canada is betraying its Aborigines, who must deal with dreadful living conditions, poor healthcare and discrimination, the country’s top Aboriginal leader said in a fiery speech on Tuesday.
Aborigines, who make up about 1.2 million of Canada’s 34.5 million population, suffer high levels of poverty and crime. Unemployment and suicide levels are highest among Aborigines, especially on the remote reserves and settlements that dot the country’s north.
Dismaying conditions in the isolated community of Attawapiskat in northern Ontario — where a severe housing crisis means people are living in tents as temperatures dip down toward minus 40oC — have been at the center of media attention since last week, embarrassing the federal government.
“Canada saw for the first time last week what we see every day, what our people live with day in and day out,” said Shawn Atleo, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations.
“Some of our communities — too many of our peoples — live in appalling conditions. This is a national disgrace, and we have reason to feel angry and betrayed,” he told an Ottawa gathering of Aboriginal leaders.
Atleo said Aborigines were living through “a tragic, frustrating and even terrifying time.”
He said the Attawapiskat debacle could be a moment of reckoning that helps Aborigines gain more control over their lives.
Successive Canadian governments have for decades struggled to improve the life of Aborigines, who want more federal spending and a much greater say over what happens to the resources on their land.
The increasing sense of frustration is helping bolster Aboriginal opposition to Enbridge’s planned C$5.5 billion (US$5.4 billion) Northern Gateway oil pipeline, which would take crude from the Alberta oil sands to the Pacific across land belonging to many Aboriginal tribes.
Ottawa currently spends about C$11 billion a year on the Aboriginal population, which leaders of Aboriginal tribes say is not enough.
Canadian Federal Indian Affairs Minister John Duncan, expressing concern about possible mismanagement at Attawapiskat, appointed an outside specialist to oversee the settlement’s finances, but the specialist was forced to leave almost as soon as he arrived.
Opposition legislators described the move as crass.
“It is a truly terrifying situation for the people there to have a government whose only response to the situation of urgency and emergency is to send in an auditor,” said Bob Rae, interim leader of the Liberal Party.
Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper responded that Ottawa would respond to the community’s needs.
He is scheduled to meet Atleo in Ottawa on Jan. 24 to discuss ways of improving the lives of Aborigines.