A new organization of Indigenous leaders is working to lay the groundwork for isolated First Nations to have a stronger presence across the country.
“Many times, our remote communities’ voices are lost, and we get the short end of the stick in terms of resourcing that is diverted to our communities,” said Bobby Narcisse, deputy grand chief with the Nishnawbe Aski Nation in northern Ontario.
“We want to ensure that the priorities and challenges of our Far North and remote communities are also taken into consideration.”
The first meeting of the National Assembly of Remote Communities is taking place in Saskatoon this week. Leaders and front-line workers are sharing stories about the challenges they face and how best to advocate for equitable funding.
The group was created as part of a $40-billion settlement with the federal government that included $20 billion in compensation and $20 billion to help reform child welfare in Indigenous communities over five years.
The Canadian Human Rights Tribunal ruled in 2016 that Ottawa discriminated against First Nations children living on reserves by chronically underfunding family and child services.
The assembly's first task is to look at increased costs for providing those services to its remote First Nations. The information will be essential for reform, leaders say.
Narcisse said the Nishnawbe Aski Nation is developing an empirically based analysis of the true cost of delivering services in the North.
“A dollar in Saskatoon is different than a dollar in many of our remote communities,” Narcisse said.
“The cost of transportation, foods and services goes well beyond the … standard amounts within our provincial and federal allocations.”
The Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations in Saskatchewan is the meeting's host.
Participants include the Nishnawbe Aski Nation, Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak representing that province's northern Indigenous communities and the Alberta and Northwest Territories regions of the Assembly of First Nations.
Many more groups have indicated they want to be involved, Narcisse said.
Many of the First Nations represented live with boil-water advisories and have limited access to health, education and social programs. Communities can only be reached by plane or on winter roads, so gasoline, food and other supplies are more expensive.
At the same time, leaders say, the First Nations are located on land rich with resources that provincial and federal governments rely on for economic growth.
Vice-chief David Pratt with the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations said a priority is to ensure equitable child- welfare reform. The federal government has made a five-year cash commitment, but Pratt said he doesn’t want to hear 20 or 30 years from now that funding still isn't sufficient.
“At the end of the day, our ultimate goal is for Canada to stop discriminating against our kids. No more."
Pratt said the long-term vision is to build a framework to advocate for funding in education, justice, health and other programs.
The assembly’s overall goal is to highlight unique needs of remote communities, Narcisse added. The plan is to complement, not compete, with organizations such as the Assembly of First Nations.
“We really need to stand together and stand firm."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 1, 2022.
Kelly Geraldine Malone, The Canadian Press