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For first nations, a season of righteous indignation takes hold

'Now is the winter of our discontent."

Those are the opening words of Shakespeare's Richard III, a play about a profoundly unhappy man living in a world that has forsaken him.

It is a phrase and narrative that aptly describes the sentiment fuelling a protest movement that is catching fire in Canada's first nations.

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Pay attention because this winter of discontent – the movement that goes by the name Idle No More – is coming soon to a community near you. Yet, Idle No More is not just another environmental protest, or the latest demand to respect treaty rights. Rather, it's a flashpoint.

It's time to restore the health of first nations and we have to start with the basics: Healthy kids, healthy families and healthy communities.

To understand what aboriginal peoples are angry about look no further than the data coming out of the First Nations Statistical Institute. (The FNSI, by the way, had all its funding slashed in the last federal budget.)

The total population of Canada's first nations is roughly 800,000, spread out over 600 mostly isolated communities and urban inner cities. Downtown Winnipeg is essentially Canada's biggest reserve, with some 30,000 first nations residents, and Vancouver and Edmonton close behind.

The first-nations birth rate is three times that of the non-aboriginal population. The median age of status Indians is 23, compared with 40 in the general Canadian population.

It's a young population living in dismal conditions with few prospects – a demographic and social time bomb ticking ever louder. Consider these realities:

52 per cent of first nations adults are employed, compared with 82 per cent of non-natives;

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The median income for a family living on-reserve is a meagre $11,229, compared with $25,955 off-reserve;

9 per cent of homes on reserves have no sewage or running water; there are currently 112 communities with unsafe drinking water;

44.4 per cent of homes on reserves are in need of major repairs, compared with 7 per cent of homes in the rest of Canada;

25.6 per cent of families live in overcrowded homes compared with 2.9 per cent of other Canadians;

54 per cent of first nations adults have less than a high-school education; it's 19 per cent for non-natives;

35 per cent of female prisoners and 23 per cent of male prisoners are aboriginal, even though they make up less than 3 per cent of the population.

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It's a sobering litany, one that should remind us that the protests taking place now are well-justified and long overdue. So too is action.

Let's not forget that the true meaning of the "winter of discontent" phrase is that the grim times have passed and made way for "glorious summer." We have to start with a modicum of hope and if you listen closely – and beyond the rhetoric – that's what you will hear the protesters demanding, and creating.

We need a hundred, a thousand, a million small gestures. We need, as a nation, to be idle no more.

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About the Author
Public health reporter

André Picard is a health reporter and columnist at The Globe and Mail, where he has been a staff writer since 1987. He is also the author of three bestselling books.André has received much acclaim for his writing. More


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