Last week, the chief of the Attawapiskat First Nation in northern Ontario launched a hunger strike because the pain of watching her people suffer had become too much to bear.
Chief Theresa Spence says she is willing to die to raise awareness about the social realities facing Canada’s First Nations.
She is demanding that the federal government respect First Nations’ concerns and treaties, restore funding to First Nations organizations and communities and work with aboriginal leaders to forge a new relationship.
Spence’s desperate political protest in a cabin on an island in the Ottawa River gives Canadians plenty of food for thought.
They may not like what they find if they take a closer look at the reasons for Spence’s protest.
It’s hard to blame Canada’s almost 1.2 million aboriginals for feeling as though they’ve been abandoned and ignored.
Despite years of planning and billions of dollars in funding, they continue to lag behind their non-aboriginal counterparts socially and economically.
Look at the statistics. Aboriginal Canadians are overrepresented in provincial and federal prison populations, where they make up 25 and 18 per cent of adults, respectively. They are also more likely to be victims of violent crime. The First Nations regional health survey (2008-10) found 51.5 per cent of respondents had less than a high school education.
A shortage of adequate housing is another issue affecting aboriginal Canadians. Attawapiskat made headlines earlier this year because of a winter housing crisis.
Red Deer residents have had to wrestle with their own affordable housing crisis.
In October, city council shot down the Red Deer Native Friendship Society’s affordable housing and cultural centre in Clearview Ridge.
The need for the project was underscored by the Red Deer Point in Time Homeless Count 2012 Final Report. It found 279 homeless people on Oct. 16, 2012, the night of the count. Forty-four per cent of them were aboriginals, even though aboriginals make up only 4.4 per cent of city residents.
The bad news just keeps on coming.
The Health Council of Canada released a report on the same day that Spence embarked on her hunger strike that suggested aboriginal Canadians frequently face racism and stereotyping when using health-care services in urban centres.
Entitled Empathy, dignity, and respect: Creating cultural safety for Aboriginal people in urban centres, the report concluded that aboriginal Canadians feel alienated and intimidated by the health-care system. These feeling cause them to avoid seeking care or drop out of treatment programs altogether, which in turn can affect their overall health. It’s little wonder that aboriginals have a shorter life expectancy than their non-aboriginal counterparts.
Canadians need to get working on addressing some of these issues, because the aboriginal community is growing rapidly. The number of aboriginal Canadians is expected to climb to 1.4 million by 2017. Aboriginal people are also younger, with a median age of 27 compared to non-aboriginals’ median age of 40, according to statistics.
Earlier this year, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said that the time had come for First Nations to fully share the standard of living and quality of life that other Canadians enjoy.
It’s time for Canadians to live up to that commitment by forging a new relationship with aboriginal leaders in order to put an end to the suffering at Attawapiskat and other First Nations across the country.
Cameron Kennedy is an Advocate editor.