APTN National News
OTTAWA—Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde on Wednesday unveiled a list of priorities he’d like to see the next governing party focus on after it achieves power at the ballot box on Oct. 19.
Bellegarde said the next federal government needed to “close the gap” between First Nations and the rest of Canada.
“First Nations priorities are Canada’s priorities,” said Bellegarde, during a press conference in Ottawa.
The national chief admitted he hasn’t voted in previous federal elections and wasn’t sure if he was going to vote in this one. Bellegarde said Elders had advised him against voting in federal elections because, as treaty people, First Nations have a direct relationship with the Crown, regardless of what party holds the reins of power.
Bellegarde, however, said First Nation people should cast a vote to influence the outcome of the election and force the next federal government to act on dealing with long-standing First Nation issues.
Bellegarde said the AFN’s priorities touch on six themes, including strengthening First Nation families and communities, achieving equitable funding, asserting rights, the environment, protecting Indigenous languages and implementing the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s recommendations.
“When the gap closes, Canada wins,” said Bellegarde.
Bellegarde said the AFN would like the next federal government to commit within the first 100 days of taking power to a process aimed at improving on-reserve education by increasing funding and giving communities control over their schools.
The next federal government should also establish a national inquiry into the high number of murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls within the same time span.
The AFN is also looking for the next federal government to lift the two per cent cap on First Nation funding by the federal Liberals in the 1990s. Bellegarde said it should be replaced with a “new fiscal relationship.” The new fiscal relationship should include new fiscal transfer arrangements, the creation of a multi-party process to create resource-revenue sharing frameworks and restored funding to First Nation political organizations, according to the AFN.
Bellegarde said the AFN wants the anti-terror law, Bill C-51, repealed along with changes to environmental regulations contained in the Harper government’s Bill C-38 and Bill C-45, which sparked the Idle No More movement.
Bellegarde said the AFN wants to help create a joint AFN-cabinet committee to deal with and monitor the Crown-First Nation relationship.
The AFN also wants increased funding for and a focus on preserving and promoting Indigenous languages.
Bellegarde said he did not have a dollar figure in mind, but said it would take billions of dollars to get First Nation communities on par with the rest of Canada when it comes to such basics as housing and access to clean water.
The situation facing many First Nation communities and people is dire. The life expectancy of a First Nation person is five to seven years lower than the national average. The infant mortality rate is 1.5 times higher than the national average and half of First Nation children live in poverty. There are currently 40,000 Indigenous children in the care of the state and youth suicide rates are five to seven times higher than the national average.
Bellegarde said NDP leader Thomas Mulcair phoned him his morning before the announcement and the NDP has already committed to holding a national inquiry into murdered and missing Indigenous women.
Liberal leader Justin Trudeau tweeted that he supported Bellegarde’s call to “Close the Gap.” Trudeau has pledged to invest $2.6 billion in new money over four years for core education funding.
The Conservative party issued as statement saying it believes “that increasing Aboriginal participation in the economy is the most effective way to improve the well-being and quality of life of Aboriginal people in Canada.”
The Conservatives said its government increased education funding by 25 per cent, constructed 41 schools and invested in 500 school projects along with renovating 22,000 existing homes. The party also said that it brought in the First Nations Financial Transparency Act, which is being challenged by 200 First Nations.
“The NDP and Liberals favour irresponsible spending over concrete and financial accountability,” said the statement.
The Harper government has already rejected calls for a public inquiry and the implementation of the TRC’s recommendations. The Harper government has also refused to increase funding for First Nation education because chiefs rejected the proposed First Nations Control of First Nations Education Act.