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“Achieving Shared Success: The Path from Poverty to Prosperity”

on February 5, 2014

[Traditional greetings] 

Good afternoon and thank you for welcoming me to the Toronto Region Board of Trade. 

Let me first begin by acknowledging the Mississaugas of New Credit and thank them for allowing this important discussion to take place in their territory. 

As I began in my language – Nuu chah nulth – this is how we begin – expressing appreciation and respect and recalling that we are connected – we all have relationships.  ‘He shook ish tsawalk’ in my language – a fundamental philosophy of the importance of relationships within families, between communities, between people and the natural world. These relationships are critical to every one of us as they were in the past, so they are again today. 

I’m honoured to be part of the RBC Diversity Dialogue Series and to continue the discussion, to learn and share with you and to talk today about the opportunities and benefits of supporting First Nations success as a way to spark success for all Canadians. 

These issues and opportunities have always been important to First Nations and now, more than ever, there is growing awareness that these issues are important for all of us. 

I’ve spoken often about the enduring relationship between First Nations and the rest of Canada, specifically the proud heritage of Indigenous Nations and the Treaties and other agreements my ancestors made with yours.  I have spoken about how these Treaties, these sacred promises from our shared past, point the  way forward to our shared future. 

Last year at the Canadian Club, I spoke about the economics of reconciliation and the related requirement to recognize our rights, for action on education, inclusion and capacity building as the key to unlocking the full potential of our people. 

Today I want to continue the story of hope and opportunity for First Nations and all of Canada by outlining the role of First Nations in shaping the Canadian economy, and the many opportunities and benefits of working towards sustainable, self-reliant and thriving First Nation economies. 

I’ll highlight the potential of First Nations in driving their own solutions in ways that reflect and respect our rights and our responsibilities to the land and the next generation.  I will point to the importance of First Nations as full participants in the economic life of this country, and how key investments in critical priorities creates a win-win for First Nations and all Canadians. 

First Nations have much to offer and Canada has much to gain. We know there is work to do, right now. 

The sad and stark realities of First Nation communities can be considered a national shame.  Canada rates 11th on the UN Human Development Index, but First Nations rank 63rd.  Many Canadians have no idea that thousands of First Nations children are living well below the poverty line. They don’t have a school to go  to; they don’t have running water in their homes. We have children living in houses that rely on wood stoves or a diesel generator for heat.  Homes are so over-crowded that families sleep in shifts so the children can get some rest for school. In some remote communities, the doctor only visits once a month.

Families struggle to provide a good meal because a litre of milk costs $15, and a single green pepper will run you almost $10. 

This reality is hidden from far too many people and too many Canadians, making it all the more easy to take the easy way out and blame the victim.  I’ve read opinion pieces by pundits who say the problem with First Nations education is that parents aren’t teaching their children that education is important. This conveniently leaves aside the reality that more than 60 First Nations communities don’t even have schools for the children to go to and in other communities our students sit shivering in unheated portables. 

But it’s equally important that Canadians see the hope and potential of First Nations, as I do in my many travels and visits to First Nation communities from coast to coast to coast. The spark in the eyes of our young people is what keeps me going, and that must be the impetus for change for all of us – like young Jaden in northern Manitoba. 

It is this spark – this resilience – this unrelenting desire for a better future that will drive the change we all need to see.  And it’s happening. 

Now is a time of unprecedented engagement by First Nations – whether it’s asserting their rights to their land on the ground or in the courts, advocating and pressing governments and industry at negotiation tables, pursuing legal challenges and human rights complaints to demand equity for our children, or driving solutions and direct initiatives at the community level. We are seeing more and more an “all hands on deck” approach by our peoples.  Just last week, the Supreme Court of Canada affirmed the commercial fishing rights of my people the Nuu chah nulth – a decade long legal battle that we kept winning only to have the crown appeal and delay.  Canada took this case all the way to the Supreme Court rather than sit with my nation to move forward on implementation of a new economic partnership. Well on Thursday the Supreme Court finally denied leave for Canada to carry on its fight any further. It’s the end of the road and finally my people have their rights upheld and the prospect of stable economic opportunity – rights that were always ours – respected. 

It doesn’t have to be this way and it shouldn’t. 

Expensive legal battles cost everyone.  I would be very interested to know what the cost to the tax payer was of Canada fighting my people.  And unfortunately, our case is not the exception. There are literally hundreds of cases just like ours before the courts.  All Canadians must demand accountability for these costs and the costs to all for inaction in moving forward on implementation and opportunity. 

Our people are ready for the hard work and the hills we need to climb, but we can move faster and farther if we move together. We are calling on governments, industry and all Canadians to commit to change with us.  Now is our time. The landscape is changing and the people are moving. 

Now is the time for fundamental and transformative change – a true moment of reckoning, as I see it – where it is incumbent on each and every one of us to embrace this potential, support it and empower it, to educate and employ First Nations, to support them in asserting their rights and title, to build our economies and engage in opportunities and partnerships. This is the road to success. This is the road to productivity and prosperity for all of us. 

My work as National Chief is about advocating for change – supporting the rights of First Nations across this country and facilitating approaches that will smash the status quo. This is about rights, Treaties and title but that also means it’s about schools for our kids, homes and health care for our families, justice for residential school survivors and action on missing and murdered women. Our agenda, like our worldview, is holistic and inter-connected. 

Our approach is always to be strategic. The needs are great so we need to identify the critical areas – the foundational areas – where action and investments will support our over-arching agenda. 

Of course in a matter of days the federal government will table the 2014 budget. I am constantly asked about my expectations? Well like you, I cannot predict, but I can tell that expectations are high because the opportunity is so rich and the imperatives are so clear. 

First Nations have put forward a plan – as we do in every budget cycle – that is strategic, reasonable and will benefit all Canadians. 

Without getting too deep into numbers and the layers of jurisdiction and bureaucracy, it is important to recognize that there are clear inequities.  Funding for critical social services on reserve has been capped at a mere 2% increase since 1996 at the same time as rates in provinces have risen at double or triple this rate.  In successive Auditor General reports, it has been clearly pointed out that there are serious structural impediments to First Nation success by the very way in which funds are transferred in an ad hoc, scattered and heavily bureaucratized fashion creating uncertainly, delays and an utter lack of sustainability in many First Nations.  Removing the arbitrary two per cent cap and setting out to create a reasonable fair rate of growth could reduce the number of First Nations children living in poverty by half.  Rather than propping up a billion dollar bureaucracy – that is the annual cost to tax payers of Aboriginal Affairs – we must create stable, fair models that result in real supports directly for our kids and families. 

Of course, decades and decades of unilateral decisions by government and vast underfunding will not be solved in a single budget cycle.  So the investments we’re proposing are aimed at creating a strong foundation that we can build on. 

Now I want to be clear – reform and reconciliation do require resources but reform and reconciliation are not only about resources. There are other actions and initiatives required.  Key investments in priority areas is not about cutting a cheque to First Nations or about status quo, band-aid solutions unilaterally designed and implemented by the government. This is about First Nations participating fully, designing and implementing solutions to drive change across the board – First Nations control of First Nations education, educated and employable citizens, adequate housing, driving our economies and participating in the country’s economy, and justice for our peoples, all based on rights and title and responsibilities and the Treaties. 

Education is a key priority for First Nations across this country and has been for decades.  Action on education is absolutely essential to unleash the full potential of First Nations citizens and communities.  It allows us to build the skills and capacities necessary to control our destiny and contribute to the country’s economic, political and cultural life. We can all agree that education is essential to long-term economic stability and prosperity. Education is an investment that reaps massive dividends for all of us. 

We have the youngest, fastest-growing population in the country, this at a time when mainstream Canada is ageing and retiring. This is going to strain our resources for health care, pensions and social services. But as Canada ages, our youth are coming of age.  I’ve said it before: investing in First Nations education is a long-term economic stimulus plan for this country. We must start now. 

We are seeking stable, predictable and sustainable funding for First Nations education.  Right now, our students are being shortchanged by the system, and we all lose.  First Nations schools are still funded using a 25 year old funding formula designed to provide education services in the 1980s. This is compounded by the 2% cap I mentioned earlier. 

Very basically, the ongoing cost of the status quo in terms of productivity and increased support requirements for First Nations is over $12 billion per year. 

Core funding through a stable funding schedule will allow First Nations to engage in multi-year planning within their communities and with educational partners.  Predictable funding through a new statutory First Nations Education Funding guarantee would enable First Nations schools to provide instruction and programs comparable to the provinces and territories, and build systems that embrace and embed our languages and cultures. 

In advance of the upcoming budget, we provided the Finance Minister with our best estimate of the investments required to achieve stable, predictable and sustainable funding for First Nations education based on a 10-year outlook. We incorporated a range of reasonable, necessary investments – for schools, classroom-level funding, language and culture, curriculum and comparable escalators. Our plan is based on closing the education gap between First Nations and other Canadians. 

I spoke earlier about the sobering and staggering statistics surrounding First Nations poverty.  In addition to the legal and constitutional impetus for change in terms of engaging First Nations, there’s an economic imperative for investing in our peoples and our nations. 

There is a First Nations right to education, and we will fight for it. There is a moral responsibility for all of us to ensure every child has opportunity and a fair start. But beyond that, if we only look at the bottom line we can see that there’s a mutual interest in action on education. 

First Nations can help eliminate poverty.  By investing in our people through education, skills training and employment opportunities, we can take significant strides together in ensuring First Nation participation in the economy.  In fact, according to the Centre for the Study of Living Standards, if we can raise First Nations education and employment levels to the Canadian average, we’ll add $400 billion to the economy over the coming years and reduce social costs by $115 billion. 

By investing in a skilled, trained and educated First Nations workforce, we will address the growing shortage of skilled workers and ensure Canada remains competitive and productive for years to come. 

The private sector is way ahead of the public sector. The Canadian Council of Chief Executives has highlighted the opportunities and advantages of investing in First Nations skills development and capacity, and at the same time emphasized the need for respectful partnerships with First Nations. These actions are directly linked, and they echo what First Nations have been saying for decades. 

I realize many of you here today could be asking how your interests will factor into the political and economic policy decisions. While First Nations continue to press governments, we are taking our message to all Canadians, and the business sector is an influential one. 

At a time when resource development is driving the Canadian economy, we must engage Indigenous nations like never before.  Our unique rights and responsibilities require a more robust form of engagement. The recent report by the Prime Minister’s Special Representative, Douglas Eyford, looking into economic development and First Nations in western Canada makes some instructive, illuminating points, one being that First Nations cannot be viewed as simply another stakeholder in development.

There is a legal, constitutional duty to consult and accommodate our interests and rights, title and jurisdiction. First Nations look to the standard of free, prior and informed consent as articulated in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. To break it down to a simple phrase, our mantra should be “engage early and engage often.” 

Another important point made by Mr. Eyford is that First Nations do not view development as simply an economic opportunity, we see it in the context of the broader efforts aimed at reconciliation.  Reconciliation means respect for our rights. It means building and maintaining relationships. This generally does not happen through a one-shot consultation session or a tribunal hearing. It takes time and a real willingness to engage. 

It means building from the solid foundation of Treaties and other living agreements like Section 35 of the Constitution Act, and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. 

In the next 10 years more than 500 major economic projects representing $650 billion in new investments are planned across Canada, almost all of which will take place in and around First Nations lands and traditional territories and which will impact – or be impacted by – First Nation interests, rights and lands. 

Right here in Ontario, for example, the chromite mining development project known as the Ring of Fire in Treaty 9 territory has the potential to be a major contributor to the provincial and national economies.

However, that potential will only be realized if local First Nations are fully engaged and their rights are respected and recognized so that the community can ensure it fulfills its own responsibilities to the land – for today’s citizens and future generations. 

I want to to be clear: engagement is not a guarantee that any and every project will proceed. We will protect our lands, our citizens, our sacred spaces and way of life. But if any project is going to have a hope of proceeding, it requires genuine, active engagement with First Nations. 

But our development and opportunities agenda requires more than resource development and business opportunities.  First Nations will continue to stand up for and protect our most precious resource – our citizens. We must invest in the health and safety of our peoples to truly build safe and thriving communities and to truly achieve success. 

We are taking action across the board for our children and leading efforts to end violence against Indigenous women and girls across the country. 

Investments must be connected to the success of our peoples and we cannot be successful until each and every one of us is safe and secure. 

First Nations are ready.  Our shared success depends on getting this right – it depends on ensuring effective relationships, respectful of First Nation rights, responsibilities and Treaties, and respect for all that First Nations have to offer. It requires relationships and meaningful partnerships that recognize the value and return on investing in First Nation capacity and skills, and the requirement and good sense in recognizing the long-term governance interests of First Nations throughout their territories.

The right approaches will support and empower First Nation governments to drive solutions that work for their citizens based on their circumstances. We will be able to take control and responsibility for the decisions that affect our lives and our lands. The right approaches will be based on respect, recognition and partnership. It will transform our relationship and our realities. 

The upcoming federal budget is an opportunity to accelerate our momentum towards reconciliation and transformation. We will be watching.  But our commitment will not waiver.  Our people are mobilizing like never before and want to move, they want progress and they are taking action. 

But it’s not just about government investment. The work of transforming the reality of First Nations in this country is a job for all of us, just as in days of Treaty when established ongoing relationships that set the foundation for our journey together in this land. 

There is a role for everyone. We are all in this together. We are all Treaty people – we are all part of relationships that make Canada today. The more Canadians stand up and commit to fixing a broken system the sooner we will see the light of a new day of justice and fairness. 

We cannot afford to lose another generation. We have the solutions, we have the resources and we must apply the will and the wisdom to build a stronger country for all of us, to give life to the future envisioned by our ancestors – yours and mine. 

The spark of hope, the growing surge for change, keeps us going, and it must compel action now. 

This is what changes the game: the recognition that we are all in this together; that we all have shared interests; that what’s good for First Nations is good for the country, because strong First Nations make a stronger Canada.

Kleco, kleco

rdbrinkhurst“Achieving Shared Success: The Path from Poverty to Prosperity”
Assembly of First Nations
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