OTTAWA, (Reuters) – Canada is betraying its native peoples, who must deal with dreadful living conditions, poor health care and discrimination, the country’s top aboriginal leader said in a fiery speech yesterday.
Native Indians, who make up around 1.2 million of Canada’s 34.5 million population, suffer high levels of poverty and crime. Unemployment and suicide levels are highest among natives, especially on the remote reserves and settlements that dot the country’s north.
Dismaying conditions in the isolated community of Attawapiskat in northern Ontario – where a severe housing crisis means people are living in tents as temperatures dip down towards minus 40 Fahrenheit (minus 40 Celsius) – have been at the centre of Canadian media attention since last week, embarrassing the federal government.
“Canada saw for the first time last week what we see every day, what our people live with day in and day out,” said Shawn Atleo, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations.
“Some of our communities – too many of our peoples – live in appalling conditions. This is a national disgrace. And we have reason to feel angry and betrayed,” he told an Ottawa gathering of aboriginal leaders.
Atleo said aboriginals were living through “a tragic, frustrating and even terrifying time”. He said the Attawapiskat debacle could be a moment of reckoning that helps natives gain more control over their lives.
Successive Canadian governments have for decades struggled to improve the life of natives, who want more federal spending and a much greater say over what happens to the resources on their land.