Closing the Economic Gap Good for Canada

Perry Bellegarde, National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations (AFN)
Perry Bellegarde, National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations (AFN)

Perry Bellegarde, National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations (AFN)
Perry Bellegarde, National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations (AFN)
TORONTO – Assembly of First Nations Chief Bellegarda spoke to the Economic Club of Canada in Toronto earlier today.

Here is the text of his remarks

Tawaw kahkiyaw,
okimâwak, nâpewak, iskwewak, kêhtêak, oskâyak. Okimaw piyisiw awasis nitisihkason. Miyo kisikaw anoch.

Good afternoon friends and relatives.

As you’d expect, as National Chief I find myself speaking on many occasions throughout the year.

But is not often that I get the chance to speak to rooms populated with opinion leaders and decision-makers like the one here today.

So I’m going to be very deliberate and very direct. This is an Economic Club, so let me tell you about the economics of First Nations.

The standard of living is appalling. Half our children live in poverty.
40,000 of these youngsters are in foster care.
132 First Nations communities are under boil water advisories.
Our life expectancy is much much lower than yours
and the suicide rates amongst our youth are many times higher.

5 to 7 times higher in fact.

I wish I could tell you that things were improving, but that’s simply not the case.

We are 4.5% of Canada’s population but 25 to 30 % of jails are filled by our people.

The United Nations human development index ranks Canada 6th in the world in terms of quality of life.

But when they apply those same measures to our people, we rank 63rd. 6th and 63rd. That’s the Gap that I speak about.

The Gap between the quality of life between First Nations and Canada.

The situation is intolerable … and it cannot go on. The Status Quo is unacceptable.

I’m hoping that if you take away one thing today, that’s it.

This quality of life gap cannot go on.

It’s bad for First Nations peoples … and it’s bad for all of Canada because there is high social and financial cost to maintaining the Status Quo.

We are a little over two weeks away from the Federal Budget. We understand that the Government is facing some difficult economic decisions. We acknowledge the challenges. But the needs are great. First Nations were left out during the good times and I would say to you today, we can’t wait any longer.

We cannot continue to treat First Nations peoples as second class citizens living in third world conditions.

We need to move on priority investments to stabilize our communities and build a solid foundation for the future. We need immediate investments in education … health … housing … water… and capital infrastructure. Child and family services … environmental stewardship … economic development and social development are all pressing priorities that have waited too long.

So when we see the Budget on March 22, these are the things First Nations peoples will be looking for.

And this isn’t just the right thing to do, It’s the smart thing for Canada too.

We have to start thinking about First Nations as an investment. Invest in human capital.

First Nations are the youngest and fastest growing demographic in Canada.

It’s been calculated that by closing the employment and education gap between Aboriginal people and Canadians, we’ll add $400 Billion to the GDP by 2015 if we start now.


And there’s an added bonus … Canada can save $115 Billion in expenditures on poverty. That is a great return on investment!

And I’m encouraged by the meetings we’ve had with the Finance Minister.

I’m also encouraged by the words of the Prime Minister who wrote in his mandate letter to the new Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs – in fact it’s in the mandate letter of EVERY Minister –

“it is time for a renewed, nation-to-nation relationship with Indigenous People, based on recognition of rights, respect, co- operation and partnership.”

Rights. Respect. Co-operation. And partnership.

These are very important and meaningful words. It’s good to hear them and even more significant to see them in the mandate letters.

But First Nations need action. And they need it now.
I believe there are three key components to that action. Fairness. Rights. And Relationship.

Fairness. Rights. Relationship. Fairness begins with ending the 2% funding cap. Think about this.

The 2% funding cap was a ‘temporary’ fiscal restraint put in place in 1996.

That’s 20 years ago! That’s a cap on growth and that’s a cap on potential.
Since that time our First Nations population has grown at a rate of 25%!

While we are capped at 2% annually,
Provinces have had no less than 3% and sometimes as high as 6% in increased transfers during this same period.

Many of you will be aware of the recent ruling by the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal which found that First Nations children on reserves were discriminated against by the Federal Government as it relates to funding.

The Tribunal said that the Crown had been providing flawed and inequitable child welfare services for decades, going back to the beginning of the Residential Schools system. That’s more than 100 years!

So when I talk about Fairness, it’s Fairness in sharing and equitable funding.
And it’s simple … we need to establish a new fiscal arrangement.

One that has equitable escalators for sustainable and predictable, on-going funding.
It is going to take some time to undo this damage. But as I said, I am optimistic.

Now let me speak to you about Rights.

Many years ago, our elders and our ancestors made a commitment to one another.

We were to work together and share this great land and resource abundancy to our mutual benefit, share as partners and respect rights.

The principles of peaceful co-existence on how we are to live together.

We approached each other … Nation- to- Nation … and we entered into a number of agreements … Treaties.
∞ Sacred covenant
∞ Spirit & Intent vs Legal
∞ Indian Act control What happened?
It’s hard to imagine how Canada, a country which sees itself as a beacon of honour and a model of peace and respectful co- existence, could fail so badly. But I think we can all agree that fail we have.

Last month in Vancouver, the AFN held its second Energy Forum.

There were leaders from Industry, Governments and First Nations in attendance.

The Federal Minister of Natural Resources said something very interesting.

He said our renewed relationship “has enormous implications for developing our nation’s abundant energy resources. Not just because there is a constitutional duty to consult and accommodate – which there is – but because it represents an opportunity to make real on the promise of First Nations as full economic partners in the development of our natural resources.”

All governments in Canada are now focused on the twin challenge of climate change and reshaping Canada’s energy future. It’s a shared conversation. And it includes First Nations governments because we do play an important role in Canada’s energy landscape – as governments, as business partners and as environmental stewards and experts.

We need to find the balance between the economy and the environment.

Long term sustainable economic development strategies are needed.

But being a full economic partner will require changes to environmental assessment regimes. It will require that Canada’s energy regulation must properly reflect First Nations’ fundamental place as peoples with Treaty and Inherent Rights, title and jurisdiction over our lands and waters.

We have the right to be there, and I can promise you, equally important, we’ll all get the right outcomes when First Nations are a part of the process … a part of the solution.
One thing I noticed in Vancouver, interestingly enough… Industry gets it.

The term “Social License” has been part of the dialogue for some time now. We need to start talking about Indigenous License. Much as industry needs a license from Government … just as you need Social License to take your products to market … today you need Indigenous License for a project before it can succeed.

Before building anything, build positive, respectful relationships.

First Nations want to create economic opportunities. Especially in newer, greener and more sustainable alternative energies.

The world has become too dependent on fossil fuels. And while we understand the importance and the jobs they bring, we need a strategy to transition to more sustainable technologies that will help us reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

We must become leaders in alternative energy to carry out our responsibilities to our lands and waters … Our children deserve no less. And this is so important right now when we talk about our energy future.
We need to work together.

And that brings me to Relationship.

Because working together is at the heart of a good relationship. That means all levels of Government – Federal, Provincial, Municipal and First Nations – as well as industry, together.
We need to take a long, hard look at Federal policy and legislation and make sure it properly addresses our relationship.

Because it’s 2016. And there is a duty to consult and accommodate First Nations as referenced in recent Supreme Court of Canada decisions.

And it is in all our best interests to make sure this duty is met. When government tries to get around it, or simply does not carry out its very distinct legal responsibilities, it’s you – the business community – that are caught in the middle.

We’ve all seen too many court cases that could be prevented if the Crown had done what it was supposed to do to – consult directly with First Nations.

The Government has committed to implementing the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People. Article 32 of the UN Declaration sets out some human rights obligations of Canada relating to Free, Prior and Informed Consent.
Canada’s human rights obligations as expressed in the Declaration are part of the regulatory framework for development that Industry also must be aware of.

Businesses should also be thinking about hiring and developing procurement strategies that bring more First Nations people and businesses into the process. We will see more success when we work together and working with us brings the added benefit of generations of traditional knowledge on balance, sustainability and responsibility.

Across the board, we are calling for a full review of all federal legislation and policies to ensure they are consistent with our Inherent, Indigenous and Treaty Rights and to use this as a lens for future policy and legislative development.
The government seems open to this commitment and I lift them up for that. This is the best way to prevent problems and avoid future legal challenges.

In closing, I want to say, we find ourselves at a remarkable place in our shared history.

We have a Government who has reached out to First Nations in a significant and meaningful way.

There is faith and hope for a renewed relationship and partnership, when just a short time ago, there was none.

As we await the Budget on March 22nd and in the days to follow, let me leave you with something to think about.

On top of the $400 billion in added GDP … on top of the $115 billion savings in social costs we will realize when we Close that Gap … think of the added benefits that healthy, strong and vibrant First Nations citizens will bring to Canada. Think of peoples speaking their languages, active in the cultural, economic and political life of this country.

This will be Reconciliation in action. There has been a promise to act on all 94 Calls to Action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. True reconciliation can be our new National Project … Our next National Dream.

But it cannot happen without you. First Nations need your help. We need your support.

So I’ll close by asking you to open your minds to a new world of possibilities … one where First Nations in Canada are respected for the contributions we have made and further, continued contributions we will make to our country … to our culture … and to our economy.

Help us Close the gap. We can do it … together. And when we do, everybody wins.


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