If Stephen Harper is searching for a priority for his newly minted majority government, if he’s looking for a legacy that would do the Conservatives and Canadians proud, he should look no further than this country’s First Nations reserves.
Despite the yearly infusion of billions of taxpayer dollars into these communities and despite decades of efforts by successive federal governments, including Harper’s own, living conditions on too many reserves are still completely inadequate.
“Unacceptable” is the word used by Sheila Fraser to describe these living conditions in her final report to Parliament as auditor general recently.
She’s right, and her verdict cannot be repeated often enough.
Indeed, the portrait of life on reserves painted by Fraser after 10 years of review should appal as well as shame both the federal government and the general public.
Housing shortages plague many reserves while the housing that exists is too often unsatisfactory. Mould, for instance, is a persistent problem.
Nor is access to safe drinking water — something Canadians consider a right — a given on many reserves.
Meanwhile, First Nations children are eight times more likely to be removed from their homes by the authorities than are other Canadian youngsters.
And the education gap between First Nations children living on reserves and the general Canadian population is widening, not shrinking.
“Notwithstanding the work that we have done and the good efforts of many people, it’s getting worse out there,” concluded John Wiersma, the interim auditor general.
It is important to realize that the problem is not a lack of federal money going into the reserves.
No, the failure stems from the systems that have been put in place to spend this money. For instance, while other Canadians have school boards and laws about safe drinking water that help regulate education and public health, First Nations reserves have only policies.
Yet as disturbing as all this is, Canadians have reason to hope for better this time.
Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan and the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, Shawn Atleo, are even now working together to set concrete goals for education, economic development and governance on reserves. A summit involving the federal government and First Nations is planned for next winter. Moreover, seven aboriginal members of Parliament were sent to Ottawa after the May 2 election — the highest number in history.
This matter goes beyond partisan politics. It touches on the obligation the vast majority of Canadians have to a small, and too often disadvantaged, minority.
Were Harper to achieve real progress here, he would have earned the praise of a nation he had truly served well.
An editorial from the Waterloo, Ont., Region Record