Much like Rosa Parks in the civil rights movement, First Nations people in Canada are demanding change in upholding their basic human rights and treaty rights. Idle No More is about confronting racism and attitudes about First Nations people. Let’s be clear: First Nations people do not want anything more than what every other Canadian takes for granted. We want running water, safe and affordable housing, education, health care, and our treaty rights to be upheld. These treaty rights were not only negotiated by First Nations ancestors, but by non-First Nations ancestors as well.
Human rights are not wants; they are rights that everyone should receive, and they should not have to be fought for. There are many misconceptions mainstream society has as to what these are for First Nations people. There are layers of very complex issues which would be difficult to sum up here. However, we need to start somewhere to inform the majority of what First Nations people struggle with.
Idle No More is equivalent to the civil rights movement because we are dying. Racism is killing my people. Chief Theresa Spence has taken a stand, much like Rosa Parks, who refused to move to the back of the bus, and she took her rightful seat in society. Chief Spence has been criticized for her hunger strike, and her goal was to get people to pay attention. Her people are dying; she had to do something. I do not know of any other leader in Canada who is willing to die for their people. She should be honoured. Much like the civil rights movement, what she did is very unpopular in the media and mainstream society.
Why is racism killing our people? When one group of people benefits from the land and the resources of Canada while First Nations people do not, I find it difficult to call it anything else. This is structural racism. It is built into the structure and fabric of Canadian society. First Nations people are the only race of people in the world who are governed by legislation. We are technically wards of the state, which means we have the Crown as our parent.
Let me be clear: Idle No More is not about money. It is about fair and equitable treatment of First Nations people. First Nations people subsidize Canada though natural resources from the land. First Nations people want what every other citizen wants. First Nations people want meaningful dialogue with their government. First Nations people want to protect the land and environment. First Nations people want their treaty rights to be upheld.
Most people do not know that funding formulas are inequitable when it comes to education, social services and health for First Nations people. Here are some examples:
Myth: We get free education.
Fact: Children on reserves get approximately 25 percent less funding for elementary and high school. Education is a treaty right that was negotiated in exchange for the land. On reserves, the average student receives $2,000-$3,000 less than the average Canadian student. Many of these “schools” on reserves are mouldy and are not fit environments to learn in.
Myth: Millions of dollars go to First Nations bands.
Fact: Most of the monies allocated to bands are spent on administration by the Department of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development before it goes to bands. By the time the band receives funding it is much, much less. This money has to go toward water systems, schools, housing, social services, health, administration and infrastructure. We do not have infrastructure support on-reserve. If we have a pothole, we have to fix it, whereas off reserve, if we have a pothole, we call the city and they fix it, no money out of pocket.
Myth: We get extra health care coverage benefits through our status cards.
Fact: We get less coverage that people who are on income assistance. We also have to get “permission” from the Department of Aboriginal Affairs for almost everything we need for health reasons. Many specialists will not take Indian status as health coverage, so we end up going without necessities such as dental care or specialist appointments.
These are only a few of the misconceptions around funding for First Nations people. We are simply trying to find a way to have healthy, educated, well-adjusted children, youth and families. Just like every other Canadian is trying to do. It is time for action and for my people to say enough is enough.
Kellie Tennant is Coordinator of the Child, Family and Community Studies - Aboriginal Stream program at Douglas College.
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