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Why I'm Cautiously Optimistic About the Plight of Aboriginal People

06/26/2013 12:20 EDT | Updated 08/26/2013 05:12 EDT

It's no secret that a disproportionate number of Aboriginal people live in poor quality housing, earn less than other Canadians, or have no work at all. Nobody is surprised to hear that Aboriginal people are more likely to be victims of violence and less likely to trust the police. And everyone knows that Aboriginal people are over-represented in our prisons and once in, less likely to get parole.

In the week leading up to National Aboriginal Day, several organizations released reports detailing these grim realities. For example, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives and Save the Children reported that 50 per cent of First Nations children are living in poverty. Here at the Canadian Human Rights Commission, we also released a report on the impact of persistent conditions of disadvantage on Aboriginal people in Canada. It provided more of the same bad news.

It's common knowledge and it's not something that Canadians take pride in. In fact, many people have become cynical or indifferent.

That's why when the Canadian Human Rights Commission released its report, I chose to focus instead on what the data didn't capture. A number of newspapers in western Canada published my opinion piece on positive changes taking place in Aboriginal communities across the country.

In it, I said that I am optimistic, because these changes are taking place.

Some people have told me they find my optimism refreshing. However, I am aware that not everyone shares it. I am also aware that some new developments have stirred controversy.

But the desire for change is undeniable, and it's happening now.

It's happening in the courts, where First Nations and Métis have won landmark victories that have potential to accelerate economic self-sufficiency.

It's happening at the level of the federal government, which has given an important boost to accountability and transparency of governing institutions, in part by extending the Canadian Human Rights Act to all First Nations.

It's happening on the ground, as First Nations take advantage of newly minted laws to take control of their resources and finances and create opportunity within their communities as never before.

Some First Nations are gaining access to low-cost, long-term financing for major infrastructure projects by issuing bonds, in the same way municipalities raise capital. As reported recently in Maclean's, the prospering First Nation community of Membertou, N.S. (it boasts one of the lowest on-reserve unemployment rates in Canada) hopes to spur further growth this way. Close to 100 First Nations are working with the First Nations Finance Authority to access capital on the international bond market.

The Framework Agreement on First Nations Land Management is another example. Over 80 communities have taken steps to implement land governance, assume jurisdiction over reserve lands and resources, and opt out of some 30 land‐related sections of the Indian Act.

Chief Austin Bear, Chair of the First Nations Land Management Resource Centre, calls the agreement "a catalyst to economic self‐sufficiency" and reports an influx of First Nations members returning to their communities, enticed by the new opportunities it has given rise to.

There are so many examples of this forward-looking approach that one scholar, the Macdonald-Laurier Institute's Ken Coates, has called it an "unsung, quiet revolution."

In a report recently released by the Institute, Coates paints an upbeat picture of prospects for Aboriginal economic improvement, citing success stories of Aboriginal entrepreneurship and new models of collaborative development. "(F)ar from being a vain and pious hope," he writes, "such models are already emerging."

Education stands out as one of the most intractable barriers to opportunity. Our record is not good. Canadian governments inflicted decades of trauma through the residential schools program, under which tens of thousands of Aboriginal children were forcibly removed from their families and shipped off to desolate Victorian barracks to have their indigenous identities beaten out of them. The pain is our legacy too. It will take generations to undo.

"Education got us into this mess," says Chief Wilton Littlechild, a survivor of residential schools and today a member of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, "and education will get us out of it."

The time to act is now. Aboriginal children are the fastest growing population in Canada. Yet on reserves, fewer than 50 per cent finish high school. Nearly half of all Canadian children in foster care are Aboriginal. How many of them will finish high school?

I commend the federal government's commitment to work with First Nations to create the First Nations Education Act. I am hopeful this will bear fruit. But let's improve child welfare services on reserves so that families get the support they need and fewer children end up in care.

I continue to hope that when the Canadian Human Rights Commission goes back to take the pulse of Aboriginal people in Canada five, 10, or 15 years from now, more of the positive impacts of the transformative change that is already occurring will be visible.

Because failure is not an option.

David Langtry is Acting Chief Commissioner of the Canadian Human Rights Commission