12/13/2012 12:20 EST | Updated 02/12/2013 05:12 EST

Why Aboriginal Frustration Is Boiling Over

Blaire Russell

The Assembly of First Nations (AFN) hosted a Special Chiefs Assembly in Ottawa last week to develop a plan to deal with the Conservative government's increasingly confrontational approach toward First Nations. Speaking to the Assembly, National Chief Shawn Atleo referred to the deterioration in the relationship with Ottawa noting, "We've seen promises broken and others act in bad faith."

He also called First Nations to action in "not rallies of a few, but a movement. A movement of peoples. A moment of nations coming together." Frustration boiled over as the assembled Chiefs rallied on Parliament Hill and tried to gain entry to the House of Commons chamber in order to be heard by Harper and his colleagues.

A tweet from Tanya Kappo of Edmonton against Omnibus Bill C-45 with hashtag #idlenomore has snowballed and inspired thousands on Monday to protest in communities across Canada against the unilateral and paternalistic approach of the Harper government.

Chief Theresa Spence of Attawapiskat started a hunger strike this week -- "I am willing to die for my people because the pain is too much and it's time for the government to realize what it's doing to us." With this government's decision to treat Aboriginal Peoples in Canada as "adversaries," Aboriginal peoples have indicated that this may well be only the beginning of their protests.

The frustration of Aboriginal Peoples is understandable given the complete lack of progress on their issues and the refusal of the government to fulfill its legal obligation to consult with them on matters that may impact their inherent and/or treaty rights.

Since the Crown First Nations Gathering the government has been ramming through legislation on First Nations' financial reporting, matrimonial property on reserves, regulation of water and wastewater, various portions of the Indian Act, Aboriginal Fisheries, land management and environmental protection -- all without proper prior consultation and without the necessary resources to implement all these changes being imposed upon them. In fact, the government has cut funding to Aboriginal councils and regional organizations, weakening their capacity to implement and the government's new rules and regulations.

We are also expecting more top-down legislation regarding First Nations education, private property ownership on reserves and a host of other issues to rain down on Aboriginal peoples from Ottawa in the near future.

The outrage of First Nations, Inuit and Métis is not only understandable, but justified.

The education gap is widening in terms of both funding and outcomes, housing shortages are becoming more acute, water and wastewater systems are in crisis and the tragic gaps in terms of First Nations health outcomes are continuing unabated. Too many resource development projects are moving forward without Aboriginal people receiving a fair share of the economic benefits or as partners in their development.

The Conservatives have promised to consult and work with First Nations in a more genuine partnership -- this was the basis for the Crown First Nations Gathering in January. Yet little has been delivered by the Prime Minister or his government. In fact Assembly of First Nations Chief Shawn Atleo has recently written to the Prime Minister and noted that an anticipated progress report due this January will, "not contain anything of substance reflective of the opportunity and our commitment to change."

We know that education is the key to success, but appallingly only one in three First Nations students currently graduates high school and the graduation rate is getting worse under this Conservative government. The Conservatives promised to close the disgraceful education funding gaps. Yet the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs has followed this promise with confrontation, actually denying the gap exists.

Almost every resource development activity currently operating or planned is occurring within 200 kilometres of a First Nations' community. The Canadian Council of Chief Executives has said Aboriginal peoples must be "true partners" in resource and energy projects, yet Treasury Board President Tony Clement alienated First Nations by dismissing their calls for a Joint Review Panel of the Ring of Fire resource development, arguing it would only bring up "irrelevant issues". Even the Prime Minister's own former senior cabinet minister Jim Prentice has chastised this government saying, "The Crown obligation to engage first nations in a meaningful way has yet to be taken up."

The Conservatives' short-sighted and confrontational approach toward Aboriginal Peoples in Canada will have serious social and economic consequences for all Canadians. It is time for the government to work with Aboriginal Peoples in Canada toward a new nation to nation relationship based on the spirit of partnership, respect, and the cooperation for mutual benefit that characterized our original relationship.