It's crucial that the new minister of aboriginal affairs and northern development hit the ground running and get to work right away to tackle the urgent issues facing First Nations communities, says National Chief for the Assembly of First Nations Shawn Atleo.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper named New Brunswick MP Bernard Valcourt as the new minister overseeing aboriginal affairs one week after accepting the resignation of John Duncan.
In an interview airing Saturday on CBC Radio's The House, Atleo told host Evan Solomon he's very hopeful that Valcourt, whom he described as a "veteran politician" will step into his new role with "a sense of urgency" to follow up on the long-term commitments the prime minister made with respect to treaty talks and comprehensive land claims.
With most of the hard work still ahead, Valcourt will be faced with other "pressing issues," according to Atleo, like "the safety and security of our communities... or the human rights crisis that continues to exist in First Nations communities."
On Tuesday, Ghislain Picard, the AFN Regional Chief for Quebec and Labrador (AFNQL) will travel to Ottawa, alongside other chiefs, to press Public Safety Minister Vic Toews to commit to long-term funding for aboriginal police services in the next federal budget.
Funding aboriginal police services
At stake are funding agreements with 18 community police services that are set to expire on March 31st and an ask for approximately $30 million in renewed funding, said Picard.
Also in an interview airing Saturday on CBC Radio's The House, Picard said a lack of renewed funding for aboriginal police services would affect 30 aboriginal communities including some 230 police officers, thus endangering the safety of First Nations.
According to Picard, while this government prides itself on being champions of public safety, there is a double-standard when it comes to the safety of First Nations communities.
"It's totally unacceptable," Picard said.
Picard took his plight to the national chief, who in turn, wrote a letter to Toews this week urging the public safety minister to meet with Picard and the First Nations leadership in Quebec and Labrador.
"I did pledge to stand with him [Picard] and the Chiefs of Quebec and Labrador to press for… the minister and the federal government to heed and respond to what I believe is part of a broad dire condition of underfunding in our communities," Atleo said.
Chiefs from Quebec and Labrador have been trying to meet with Toews since the 2011 budget when the federal government announced a 19 per cent cut in the funding agreements to First Nations police forces, Picard explained.
"But really to no avail," said Picard.
According to Atleo, "this is not an issue that is new to these last few days or this last week. We've communicated with the federal government and with the minister, and I would again urge the minister to meet with the leadership in Quebec and Labrador and heed the call... to address this fundamental issue. If there is one element that is absolutely critical... that's public safety."
"We have a higher incarceration rate than we do a graduation rate," Atleo said.
Picard explained that the federal government funds aboriginal police services at a rate of 52 per cent, with provincial governments funding the other 48 per cent.
A spokesperson for Toews said, "while policing is primarily a provincial responsibility, we work with our provincial counterparts to keep our communities safe."
"Federal investments in dedicated policing in First Nations and Inuit communities has made a significant contribution to improving public safety in First Nation and Inuit communities for over 20 years," said the spokesperson, adding they could not comment "on any potential future budget decisions."
As for the letter Atleo send Toews, "we will be reaching out to the AFN in the near future," said Julie Carmichael, the director of communications for the minister of public safety.
The Chiefs from Quebec and Labrador will be calling on the Opposition parties to intervene in their call for renewed federal funding to aboriginal police services.
On Monday, Atleo will be appearing at the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal when hearings into allegations that Canada discriminates against First Nations children begins.
The national chief will make an opening statement advocating the need for equity and fairness for First Nation children.
The hearings are expected to continue until August 2013.
'Shift in the status quo' needed
Atleo said he'd spoken with Roger Augustine, the AFN Regional Chief for New Brunswick and P.E.I., who has had some dealings with Valcourt in the past, and that Augustine expressed "some positive sentiments about the potential to get right to work."
"We do need to see a significant shift in the status quo," said Atleo adding that "every minister of aboriginal affairs operates within a box that's too overly confined for us to make progress on."
The national chief said First Nations not only need to see the prime minister take the lead on aboriginal affairs but they "also need a minister who will have the ear of the prime minister."
Atleo said Valcourt has signalled that he would like to meet with the national chief at his earliest convenience.
"I appreciate receiving that signal and we will arrange for a conversation as quick as possible," Atleo said.
Valcourt's appointment comes at a challenging time in the relationship between the federal government and First Nations.
It was just six weeks ago that Harper committed to greater ministerial oversight after meeting with Atleo and other First Nations leaders, a meeting brought to the fore by the Idle No More movement and a six-week-long hunger strike by Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence.
Since then, the federal government and the AFN leadership have been meeting to discuss treaty implementation issues and land-claim settlements. And the AFN just concluded an internal meeting "to reflect on the work up until now," Atleo said.
As for the much talked about follow-up meeting between the prime minister and the national chief, Atleo said while it is on their minds "any opportunity to meet with the prime minister must be based on the potential for real progress or to overcome obstacles or challenges in the way."