by Scott Serson
On the context for the Conference, I take my lead from Mr. Martin' remarks; with respect to the quality of life of Aboriginal people in Canada, we have an "unacceptable status quo". Christy Bressette cited former Auditor General Sheila Fraser's view that the situation for First Nations people is not improving, it is getting worse. Mary Simon talked about an Inuit "education deficit" (as opposed to an "achievement gap" which seems to fault young Aboriginal learners). But several other speakers mentioned that the deficit is broader than education e.g. students may be going to school hungry and living in over-crowded houses where they are forced to sleep in shifts.
The Aboriginal leaders also sent a strong message that they face significant challenges in adopting "inspiring approaches" on a wider scale. Regional Chief Googoo cited severe restrictions on federal transfers to First Nations for basic services like education. Those restrictions have been in place for 16 years! Clément Chartier mentioned Métis children are caught in a jurisdictional dispute between the federal and provincial governments. This challenge in the status-quo was also underscored by Phil Fontaine's reference to the Kelowna Accord which was aimed at the Aboriginal quality of life deficit but never funded and by the frequent references to Cindy Blackstock and her efforts to have a Human Rights Tribunal hear a complaint on 'comparable' services for First Nations children.
All this suggests that, in addition to the Foundation work supporting projects that test "inspiring approaches", a broader approach is required. I thought Mr. Martin challenged non-Aboriginal participants to inform Canadians about the living conditions of Aboriginal peoples in the communities in which they work. This is often expressed in the following terms, 'if Canadians knew of the third world conditions in many Aboriginal communities, they wouldn't stand for it'. Aboriginal leaders try to describe the situation in their communities but the suggestion is that their voices are weak, or over-exposed. They need help. Unfortunately, I didn't hear any discussion of the role the Foundations could play in this area. It occurs to me that they might have legal concerns if 'communications' gets seen as 'advocacy' or worse still 'political advocacy'.
This leads me to question whether the 'circle' does need to be expanded to include some of the big international development charities. They seem to be guilty of largely ignoring conditions in Aboriginal communities that they decry in poor countries. The Australians offer an example where Oxfam has played a significant financial and monitoring role in a movement to improve the health status of Aboriginal Australians (google 'closing the gap Australia' for more information).
Finally, while it may have been wishful thinking on my part, I thought there was an undercurrent of thought/discussion around the idea of working with Aboriginal leaders to challenge Canadians and their political representatives to work to adopt a real concrete goal with respect to eliminating the quality of life deficit of Aboriginal Canadians, or a portion of it, within a set time period.
I won't go much farther because I really don't understand the networking or the leadership that led to what was an excellent conference. As I see it, those that brought us together are faced with a few questions, among them:
- Is there more that can be done to show, explain, bring the quality of life deficit of the Aboriginal peoples of this land to Canadians in effort to spur greater efforts from federal, provincial and territorial governments to eliminate this deficit? Could/should conference participants be organized/networked to tackle this work in a systematic way? Does the 'circle' need to reach out to new partners to ensure progress?
- Could a movement be created, or strengthened (if such a movement exists), to work with Aboriginal leaders to challenge federal, provincial and territorial governments to set a time-specified goal of eliminating the quality of life deficit?
I attended the Conference as an independent advocate. I have some personal limitations but would be prepared to contribute if there is a positive answer to such questions.
Thanks again for all your work on this worthwhile event.
Scott Serson is a private consultant. Mr. Serson began his career as a guidance counselor in the not-for-profit sector followed by a rich and varied career of over thirty years in the public service. He attended the Changemakers Summit and sent us this reflection. We asked if we could share it as a blog post. Scott agreed – we hope you enjoy it!