On Tuesday, Bob Rae stood in the House of Commons and delivered a thundering attack aimed at the Conservative government's lack of action and compassion for the families living in third-world conditions in Attawapiskat. Along with the other attacks from the NDP, it is clear that the finger pointing has begun in earnest.
Where should we pointing our finger? Whom should we blame?
According to the opposition parties, it is all the fault of the Conservatives. Bob Rae's passionate attack was good television, undoubtedly reflecting his personal feelings, but it neglected the fact that the Conservatives have only been in power since 2006 and it is impossible to fix the neglect of many decades -- a neglect, some could argue, that extends back to the foundation of these reserves. Rae's attack also ignores the fact that the previous Liberal governments didn't solve these problems either and in the last century they had been in power much longer than the Conservatives. We can certainly point a finger at the Liberal Party as well.
If the Conservatives want a "True North Strong and Free" then they have to look beyond infrastructure and military exercises to the needs of people throughout the North and on reserves across Canada. This means improving health care, social services, education, housing and running water. These are basic needs that most of us take for granted. Until conditions improve, we can point a finger at them too.
I have had the opportunity to work in one capacity or another with all of the Conservative Aboriginal (INAC) ministers and the prime minister and I know that based on my experience, all are compassionate individuals who would deplore the conditions that exist in Attawapiskat and on other reserves across the country. While steps have been taken to improve conditions since the Conservatives came to power with some $2.5 billion spent so far to improve water quality and water systems and some $9.2 million in Attawapiskat including schooling costs, Aboriginal Affairs Minister Duncan said, "We are not getting the results that we thought we should get." All very true and in need of a follow-up, but in the meantime, families in Attawapiskat and on other reserves are in desperate need of assistance now. Has the department provided the minister with an audit of the number of families in emergency need and an action plan to deal with this crisis in the short term while longer term issues are being taken care of?
What about MPS from all parties? Should we point a finger at them too? MPs are quick to hop on the latest junket and travel abroad at taxpayers' expense. How many of them have made a point of travelling to these reserves to see firsthand the living conditions? How many will travel north this winter to some of these isolated reserves as opposed to somewhere sunny and warm?
What about the Aboriginal Affairs Department? They deserve a finger pointing at them. How can a bureaucracy allow these conditions to develop? This didn't happen overnight. Why were they unaware that these families were at risk? And if they were aware, why didn't they take action before it became a media spectacle? Where is their compassion?
The department will send their minister from coast to coast to meetings that they designate as important. All well and good, but how many times have they asked the minister to visit the isolated communities like Attawapiskat? How many times have they taken a minister inside a mould-infected home and shown them the lack of toilets and living conditions? How much time does the department spend on red tape items and procedures and being worried about jurisdictional issues instead of simply helping out families in need?
What about the First Nations themselves? Were there not others in wealthier reserves across the country that could step in and help a family in need? It is not good enough to say it's the government responsibility, let them do it. Compassion should be the key word, not responsibility.
What about the AFN? We can point a finger there too. How many meetings focus on rights, jurisdiction and sharing of powers with the government versus how much time is spent on a rescue plan to help families in need? Have they conducted an audit of individual family needs? Has the chief of a reserve in trouble brought these needs to the AFN or to other reserves to ask for help? If so, tell us so that Canadians can get a better understanding of the issue. And if not, why hasn't this been done?
What about our NGOs? At this time of the year we are shown lots of television commercials asking us to support a child in a third-world country... very valid and very necessary, but what about our children living on reserves in third-world conditions here? Should we point a finger at the NGOs too?
Church congregations from coast to coast send aid packages around the world to those in need. Why don't some of them work through the AFN or directly with a reserve to get emergency supplies to families in need as winter approaches?
Each and every one of us can stand with an arm outstretched and finger pointing outward and make a complete 360-degree turn. There will be lots of individuals and government officials or departments that we can point to and blame for the third-world living conditions on our reserves. But in the end we need to turn our finger inward and point at ourselves because each and every one of us by our inaction shares some responsibility for allowing those living conditions to continue.
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