First Nations leaders will meet with Prime Minister Stephen Harper and key government members on Jan. 24 in an Ottawa summit to address what Archbishop James Weisgerber of Winnipeg ranks as the most important issue facing Canadian society today CNS photo/Chris Wattie, Reuters

Make a new start with First Nations leaders

By 
  • January 17, 2012

Decades of failed policies and broken treaties have created an appalling level of social and economic misery that affect every layer of aboriginal life. So the first thing needed to fix the problem is a decision about where to start.

To that end, First Nations leaders will meet with Prime Minister Stephen Harper and key government members on Jan. 24 in an Ottawa summit to address what Archbishop James Weisgerber of Winnipeg ranks as the most important issue facing Canadian society today —  forging a new relationship between the First Nations, Metis and Inuit people and the rest of Canada.

The meeting catapulted to prominence in December following revelations of deplorable living conditions among the Cree people of Attawapiskat in northern Ontario. But the Ottawa meeting isn’t just a response to the shame of Attawapiskat. The despair of that community only represents the poverty affecting most of Canada’s 1.2 million indigenous people.

Following decades of unrealized promises, there is no quick fix. But a place to start might be found in leftover briefing notes from the 2010 summit in Canada of G8 and G20 leaders. There, Prime Minister Stephen Harper made maternal and child health his signature cause and, after Canada pledged $1.1 billion, other nations chipped in an additional $6 billion over five years.The money will help bring core medical services, clean water and basic nutrition to women and children in impoverished African and Asian nations.

Likewise, Canada would benefit from a well-funded plan to attack child and maternal health on native reserves. While no cure-all for the many historic issues related to scores of unfulfilled treaties, it would be a start. Even if the summit accomplishes nothing else, creating a specific health strategy for the most vulnerable reserve residents would make this gathering successful.

At minimum, the Harper government should attack native health care with the same gusto it brought to its overseas initiative. For aboriginal women, that means access to professional prenatal services and ongoing medical care and parenting support well after pregnancy. For children, it means building healthy environments that provide clean water, proper nutrition, warm clothes and mould-free housing that comes with heat, electricity and plumbing.

Additionally, First Nation, Metis and Inuit children have a right to a proper education, the key to sustaining a comfortable living standard. A priority of the summit should be addressing the inadequacies of reserve schooling and reversing appalling high-school drop-out rates. Education, good health and prosperity go hand-in-hand, with numerous studies showing educated societies live better, live longer and are generally healthier.

A one-day summit is unlikely to find a comprehensive solution to disagreements that have festered from coast to coast for decades. But by targetting so fundamental an issue as maternal and child health, it could make a good start.

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