VANCOUVER, May 24 (IPS) - Phil Fontaine, the Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, a Canadian aboriginal governing body, says that the anger felt by First Nations communities over deplorable economic and social conditions has hit a wall and civil disobedience will increase in the coming months.
The issue made national headlines last week when the Globe and Mail reported that a prominent First Nations leader in Manitoba threatened economic disruption and potentially blockading a national rail corridor.
In an address to the business community at the Canadian Club of Ottawa, Fontaine asked governments to move more quickly in dealing with 1,100 outstanding claims. He argued that at the present pace of settlements, it would take another 130 years to resolve them.
Chief Stewart Phillip, Grand Chief of the British Columbia Union of Indian Chiefs and Chief of the Penticton Indian Band, told IPS in an interview from an Assembly of First Nations conference in Ottawa, "To begin with, the frustration has been building for many decades and leading to a very tragic cost. There is domestic violence, drug-related violence and institutionalised poverty on our reserves. We are expecting marches and demonstrations aimed at government and businesses. This will be a campaign that goes beyond the summer."
Indian Affairs Minister Jim Prentice has responded that the threats of economic disruption and militancy are "counterproductive".
The federal government, under the Conservative minority leadership of Stephen Harper, recently scrapped the Kelowna Accords, a landmark funding deal aimed at partially addressing historical inequities on First Nations reserves. The Kelowna Accords was a five-billion-dollar deal to address the gap in quality of living between First Nations and other Canadians. The accords had set targets to improve indicators such as education, housing, economic development and health and water services.
Chief Phillip told IPS that First Nations politics tend to become more militant on a cyclical basis. "Every 15 years or so, you see the frustration boil over. This situation is a national disgrace and the single biggest human rights violation in Canada. This will be similar to the 1990 Mohawk crisis and I expect there will be blockades across the country. This situation has been a long time coming. The Harper government, unfortunately, has taken a very hostile and confrontational approach."
Phillip also cited the Harper government’s refusal to apologise for Canada’s decades-long programme of forcing First Nations children into the notorious residential school system, where they were denied contact with relatives and stripped of their cultural heritage. According to one government report, conditions were so terrible that between 1894 and 1908, the death rate among students at residential schools in Western Canada ranged from 35 percent to 60 percent.
The last residential school closed in 1997 amid revelations of widespread sexual and physical abuse of students in the system. A compensation package was approved through the courts, but many First Nations viewed the decision as not going far enough.
Phillip told IPS, "This movement will take positions which are definite and deliberate. We will attempt to bring people together through broad-based coalitions."
Phillip also said that institutions like the Indian Claims Commission were ineffective, poorly structured and disempowered to make lasting and just decisions.
"At this juncture in our history, past approaches are not working. This reflects the pronouncements regarding aboriginal rights which have not been realised and have eclipsed the decisions of the Supreme Court of Canada," said Phillip. "This cannot be a one-off demonstration. It will be an ongoing campaign which will make the situation very difficult for community leaders."
Chief Phil Fontaine, in his ad