Can the new First Nations initiative create positive change?

Andy Radia
Politics Reporter
Canada Politics

Several political heavyweights, from Parliaments past, convened in Ottawa on Thursday to launch a new organization aimed at improving the relationship between the Indigenous Peoples and other Canadians.

The not-for-profit initiative, dubbed Canadians for a New Partnership, includes the likes of former AFN Chief Ovide Mercredi, former auditor general Sheila Fraser and former prime ministers Paul Martin and Joe Clark.

While they were light on details, they say that they intend to achieve better living conditions, education, and economic opportunities for aboriginal groups by “engaging Canadians in dialogue and relationship building.”

"There is much to be gained by repairing relations between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people – and much to be lost if we fail to reconcile our differences," Mercredi said in a statement.

"The Constitution enshrines our rights and the courts have consistently upheld them. We are not going to go away and we are not going to fade into the fabric of non-Aboriginal society. We can either develop the vast potential of Canada together or we can continue the paralysis that flows from misunderstanding, betrayal and neglect. There is no question which path this Partnership chooses to travel. Our challenge to the rest of Canadians now is ‘come with us.”

Canada’s opposition parties are lauding the new organization. 

NDP MP Charlie Angus says that this is a positive move that is partly necessitated by the Harper government dropping the ball on the Aboriginal file. 

"My sense travelling the country is that Canadians are very frustrated with the lack of leadership on resolving First Nation issues and building a better relationship from the present government," Angus told Yahoo Canada News in a telephone interview.  

"Perhaps some elder statesmen, perhaps some respected citizens can help build some bridges, open some dialogue. It’s in the benefit of all of us to start to work together to improve the primary relationship that’s in our country."

Liberal leader Justin Trudeau says that he also welcomes the new initiative. 

"There is an immediate and critical need for a partnership that addresses urgent issues in a manner which respects inherent and Treaty rights. Canadians For a New Partnership and all those involved should be commended for seeking reconciliation and recognizing that a different approach is required," Trudeau said in a statement

"For years now, the federal government has failed in its duty to partner with Indigenous communities. Today’s initiative has emerged as the direct result of this failure to provide national leadership.”

[ Related: If inquiry into fate of aboriginal women isn’t justified after death of Tina Fontaine, then when? ]

First Nation relations with the federal government are certainly strained: There was the Idle No More movement in 2013, the public outcry over the Harper government’s decision not to hold a national inquiry into missing and murdered women, consternation over the government’s First Nation transparency legislation; and an overall sense of growing unrest of the status quo. 

Nevertheless, the Department of Aboriginal Affairs remains resolute. While they didn’t want to comment directly on the Canadians for a New Partnership initiative, they did want to defend their record. 

"Our Government will continue to work with Aboriginal Canadians to create economic opportunities and improve the quality of life of First Nations," a spokesperson for Minister Bernard Valcourt told Yahoo Canada News.

"Our investments in jobs training, safe drinking water and infrastructure in addition to legislation that ensures the same basic matrimonial rights for women, are contributing to stronger, more self-sufficient and prosperous First Nation communities.”

If Canadians for a New Partnership  an organization which includes two Conservative Party adversaries in Martin and Clark  doesn’t get the government onside, it’s difficult to imagine them affecting any real change. 

"Engaging Canadians in dialogue" with lectures and speeches is laudable, but only the government can legislate action.  

(Photo courtesy of The Canadian Press) 

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