OTTAWA - The federal minister of aboriginal affairs says he understands quite well why First Nations youth are rebelling, but says that as he travels the country to speak to aboriginal communities, he senses far more consensus with federal policies than confrontation.
In an interview with The Canadian Press, Bernard Valcourt says it's no wonder there is frustration among aboriginal young people as they cope with overcrowding, poor health, high unemployment, violence and high rates of incarceration.
"My sense is that the impatience we smell out there, it comes mainly from these young aboriginals, who I feel and I sense are getting frustrated at the little progress they see, themselves," Valcourt said in an interview in his Parliament Hill office. "They look at their family in terms of their brothers and sisters and parents; they don't see much change in certain areas."
But Valcourt says his government has demonstrated a willingness to find practical solutions, starting with education — a priority most First Nations leaders agree with.
"What is the most fundamental, substantial, substantive approach that will correct and contribute to changing the situation if not education?" Valcourt asked rhetorically. "This was an idea that was promoted by the leadership of the aboriginal leaders in the country."
Valcourt was named minister — what he called a "daunting challenge" — in the aftermath of the Idle-No-More protests and liquids-only hunger protest of Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence last winter.
Activists are gearing up for more demonstrations and blockades in the next few months, already deep into planning a "solidarity summer" that would include urban protests as well as direct action on First Nations lands — especially those areas that companies are eyeing for resource development.
Valcourt says he recognizes the right to demonstrate and speak out, but he would prefer discussions to find solutions instead.
"I would rather have a real conversation than yelling at one another."
He said he has travelled extensively since taking over from John Duncan three months ago, and found a widespread willingness to work with Ottawa on education, skills and training, and economic development.
"I think there is much more consensus out there in the reality than the politics let out."
Senior officials from Valcourt's department and the Privy Council Office have been in deep talks with First Nations leaders since January in an attempt to find agreement on how to handle and modernize the ancient treaties and aboriginal rights that First Nations say have been ignored for too long.
Both Valcourt and Assembly of First Nations national chief Shawn Atleo say steady progress is being made. Indeed, Valcourt expects concrete recommendations for a path forward by the end of the summer.
But in a recent interview, Atleo also said he was getting mixed messages from the government. While he notes progress in the working groups with senior officials, he also sees steps backward in dealing with child welfare, numerous pieces of legislation being passed without proper funding or thorough consultation, and in Ottawa's refusal to launch a national inquiry into hundreds of aboriginal women who have gone missing or been murdered.
“There’s always been this pattern that, ‘well, let’s just do one or two things now, and the rest, you know, we can deal with later,’” Atleo said in an interview with The Canadian Press at the end of May.
He said the degree of summer unrest depends largely on how far the federal government moves beyond rhetoric into concrete action.
Valcourt said he is convinced that First Nations youth will see Ottawa's agenda that is poised to deliver, but over time.
"These young aboriginal people, I think that if they are prompted and if they know that this is not just smoke and mirrors and they know we are ready to work with them, together we can put forward solutions and methods of maybe obtaining those results that they are longing for," the minister said.
Many of the Idle-No-More protesters and their supporters have focused on major changes to environmental protections and oversight — something the federal government has refused to reverse.
Still, Atleo said he did see some hope in Ottawa's willingness to allow a visit from James Anaya, the United Nations special rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples. The visit is likely to take place this fall, with Anaya taking a close look at Canada's human rights record in dealing with aboriginal peoples.
Valcourt said he wants to help Anaya understand intimately the intricacies of the Crown-First Nations relationship so that if the UN representative has advice to offer Canada, it is based on fact and not political argument.
"This gentleman has, I hope, enough fortitude to sit down with me and my officials so I can draw the real situation in Canada," Valcourt said.
He noted that aboriginal peoples have the stiffest guarantee for decent treatment that exists in law: constitutional protection.
"I will never shy from the efforts that Canada makes."