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15 Years on: The Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples

Valerie Lannon

February 19, 2012

In a recent issue of Socialist Worker, we reported on the highlights from the 1996 Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, which included recommendations for restructuring the relationship between Aboriginal Peoples and the Canadian state. The Report also called for significantly more resources to enable Aboriginal Peoples to close the gaps with non-Aboriginal people in terms of economic, judicial, social, education, and health outcomes.

Now, slightly over 15 years later, we are compelled to ask: “What, if anything, has changed for Aboriginal peoples since 1996?”

One need look no further for our answer than the Harper government’s reaction to the housing and infrastructure crisis in Attawapiskat or its branding of indigenous opponents of the Enbridge pipeline as “radicals”.

What do the numbers say?

In 2006, the Assembly of First Nations (a pan-Canadian organization) issued a “report card” on RCAP. Most of the findings below are from that report card, unless noted otherwise. One can assume that the gaps in outcomes between First Nations and non-indigenous people have only been exacerbated by the impact of the financial crisis starting in 2008.

First Nations communities rank 76th out of 174 nations when using the UN Development Index 2001. This compares to Canadian communities who rank 8th.

Population – The indigenous population increased 45 per cent between 1996 and 2006 (the latest census date for which data are available), to 1,172,790, or 3.8 per cent of the total population of Canada and Quebec. Almost half of the indigenous population is under the age of 25. There is a continuing trend of fewer First Nations peoples living on reserve, down to 40 per cent in 2006.

Housing – In November 2011, the CBC noted a federal report from earlier in the year that stated 20,000 to 35,000 new housing units are needed just to meet current demand. The Assembly of First Nations puts the total much higher, at 85,000. The CBC report went on to state that 41.5 per cent of homes on reserves need major repairs, compared with seven per cent in non-aboriginal households outside reserves. Rates of overcrowding are six times higher on reserve than off. A third of First Nations people see their drinking water as unsafe to drink, and 12 per cent of First Nations communities have to boil their drinking water. Six per cent are without sewage services, and 4 per cent lack either hot water, cold water or flushing toilets.

Income and employment levels – Unemployment is over 50 per cent and rises to over 60 per cent for those without high school completion. A quarter of First Nations children live in poverty, compared to one in six Canadian children. Over 10 per cent of First Nations children are in care with child welfare agencies, compared to 0.67 per cent of all other children.

Health outcomes – Life expectancy for First Nations men is 7.4 years less, and for First Nations women 5.2 years less than others. First Nations are more likely to require health care services than others, with rates of diabetes three times the national average, and tuberculosis rates eight to ten times higher. In a revealing 2007 report on the health of “status Indians” by BC’s Provincial Health Officer (“Pathways to Health and Healing”), it was noted that of 57 health indicators, 18 had shown some improvement, 10 had worsened, and 8 had shown increasing rates of chronic disease. One of the most significant concerns was with the widening gap for HIV/AIDS disease “which is reflective of both increased vulnerability and a lack of access to…therapy.”

Education outcomes – By 2011, according to the AFN, high school graduation rates for First Nations students are around 50 per cent, which means a dropout rate far higher than others.

Government response

With caps in spending becoming the norm, indigenous people on and off traditional territories have seen their already undersized benefits continue to decline. For example the two per cent cap in AANDC (former INAC) funding means that since 1997 communities have essentially lost billions of dollars.

By 2005, the Liberal government entered into the “Kelowna Accord” with provincial and territorial governments and a number of national First Nations organizations. The Accord would have seen an increase of $5 billion in spending over 10 years. But the Harper government was not willing to agree to the funding, however inadequate it was to meet the needs of indigenous peoples.

Instead, in 2008 Harper formally apologized for the state’s role in creating residential schools and the havoc they created. While the apology was something long sought by indigenous people, many considered it meaningless without the resources so desperately needed. Similarly, in 2010 Canada endorsed the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, a symbolic victory only.

And for those First Nations involved in treaties, particularly in BC, there is continued exasperation with the process of “modern” treaties that began in 1991. There have been only three settlements and the pace is unacceptably slow. Chief Commissioner Sophie Pierre said recently, “We know in the next few years we could have 13 treaties done. And if we can’t do it, it’s about time we faced the obvious—it isn’t going to happen, so shut ‘er down.”

How indigenous communities fighting back?

But against this backdrop of government neglect, indigenous communities have continually fought back. There have been court cases with some success, such as the Nuu-chah-nulth (BC) victory regarding fishing rights.

As we have seen, there have also been continued negotiations, but for the most part these have not been successful in terms of new treaties.

And so the third option, “assertion” has become much more prominent. Examples in Ontario include the initiatives of the Haudenosaunee Nations of Grand River to assert their rights to the Haldemand Tract, which has become known as the Caledonia crisis. From 1999 to 2001 the Burnt Church First Nation of the Mi’kmaq in New Brunswick fought for their rights to catch lobster “out of season”.

While many of these struggles attracted support from non-indigenous people, the more recent battles around the tar sands and its related pipelines (Keystone, Enbridge) have truly succeeded in uniting indigenous and non-indigenous peoples in both Canada and the United States.

What should socialists do?

In the context of indigenous environmental activism, the Occupy movement, and local fight-backs such as the anti-Ford struggles in Toronto, these are great opportunities for solidarity. Socialists need to be strongly involved in all solidarity actions, following the lead of indigenous partners. We need to continue to influence trade unions and student groups to take up indigenous campaigns. With 2012 shaping up to be a year of continued fight-back, prospects for indigenous victories have never been better.

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