Ontario has the largest First Nation population in Canada and the most diverse and far-reaching population. The Caldwell First Nation is located at Point Pelee, the most southern tip of Canada. The Fort Severn First Nation is located on Hudson Bay and is the most northern community in all of Ontario.
Fort Severn was established as one of the very first trading posts in North America in 1689. Just a few decades later, the Mississauga Ojibwe began trading with the British and French on the shores of Lake Ontario. In fact, the trading post of Port Credit was partly built with the assistance of the Ojibwe.
This is where our nation-to-nation relationship began – through trade with the newcomers. When the newcomers arrived, we welcomed them with our hand in friendship.
This is how treaties were formed; it is this hand in friendship and the friendship treaties – this is how Canada began.
From Hudson Bay and James Bay to the Great Lakes, we traded with the settlers, and made them wealthy. If it weren’t for our Peoples, there would be no one to trade with.
Back then, our Peoples had much in common with today’s prospectors and developers. We were entrepreneurs. We took risks. We relied upon our own skills. We were dependable and indispensable.
We prospered in good times and survived through the bad times. First Nations played a key role in building the original economy of Canada. Today, the mining industry plays a key part of this country’s economic engine.
First Nations need to renew that economic relationship. For us, it really is a matter of life and death.
Since the now 140-year-old Indian Act, we have been treated as wards of the state. We are First Nations, who are considered as afterthoughts in government policy and priorities, and treated like second-class citizens, some of whom live in third world conditions.
In 1974, B.C. First Nation leader George Manuel coined the phrase – and the title of a book – The Fourth World: An Indian Reality. It describes the struggles taken up by our Peoples to reclaim the riches in our traditional territories that we have been deprived of.
For the most part, that struggle continues today.
In 2017, as Canada celebrates its 150th anniversary, there are far too many of our children and youth who cannot even celebrate life.
We have children committing suicide due to poverty and despair, dysfunction and abuse. We have a welfare state system that renders far too many of our chiefs helpless and powerless.
So how do we restart the relationship? The 1996 Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (RCAP) report is still the benchmark that has all the solutions, which boil down to self-government and a sufficient land base for economic selfsufficiency.
In Ontario, the 2007 Ipperwash Report repeats many of the same top RCAP recommendations.
However, one of the most important Ipperwash recommendations is that Ontario implement resource revenue sharing.
In February, I attended the Nishnawbe Aski Nation winter assembly. NAN represents 49 First Nation communities in northern Ontario, which include some of the poorest communities in Canada. Most of the three-day assembly was spent debating the latest suicide crisis.
There is a stark contrast if you were to attend a Grand Council of the Cree assembly on the other side of James Bay in Quebec. A good portion of the agenda is devoted to wealth sharing, commerce and industry, and the latest dividends from CREECO operations.
The Quebec Cree are already at the next level of self-governance and wealth generation through resource revenue sharing.
This is a conversation that First Nation leaders across the country must have with their provincial Premiers.
In the meantime, major investments are needed in child welfare, clean water, proper housing, education, and simply eradicating poverty and despair.
Two decades of a 2% cap on funding – which amounts to a loss of $30 billion to First Nation communities – has resulted in a very big hole of poverty and despair.
I remain confident that the current federal government is committed to following through on its mandate to renew the nation-to-nation relationship with Indigenous Peoples.
We must begin now to turn the corner on eradicating poverty and despair. We must begin now to rebuild at the community level. We must offer hope so our children no longer contemplate suicide.
Our children must be able to see a bright future where they are the masters of their own destiny. Our children must be empowered to become contributors and protectors of their families, their languages, and their cultures.
Our children must be able to prepare for a future where they are the leaders of happy, healthy communities. Most importantly, where they control their own destinies.
The author, Wiindawtegowinini, is Assembly of First Nations Ontario Regional Chief.