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Attitude change necessary to improve life for next generation of First Nations

If the report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission brings solace and healing to lives damaged by years in residential schools, then it is worth the time and expense.

But if the next generation of First Nations people are to live free, independent and prosperous lives, we will need change beyond even the 94 recommendations of Justice Murray Sinclair.

The challenge is to revolutionize attitudes, in a race against time that native Canadians are losing.

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Bob Rae, a former Ontario premier and federal Liberal leader, put it well in this newspaper, Tuesday, when he wrote: "The path ahead is not just about politics, it is a change of heart and mind that starts with each and every one of us."

Each and every one of us means non-aboriginal Canadians who fail to respect the sovereignty and integrity of the First Nations, who disown the damage inflicted on native culture by generations of European settlers and their descendants, who elect and re-elect federal and provincial governments of all political stripes that feel no compulsion to put native issues at the forefront of their agenda.

It also means aboriginal leaders who place the nursing of grievance above the needs of members of their communities who depend on them, who refuse to accept the reality that there are only 330,000 people living on reserve and 34.6 million living off it, who ignore the 280,000 immigrants – almost the equivalent of the entire on-reserve population – who arrive in Canada each year. Most of these new arrivals are from countries that suffered under colonialism. They have their own scars.

Both sides bear responsibility for the failure last year of the First Nations education act, which could have brought revolutionary change to aboriginal education – a true and proper response to the catastrophe of the residential schools. The act would have created native school boards with the curriculum and resources that respected First Nation languages and culture, while closing the gap between on-reserve and provincial public schools.

Infighting among the chiefs and the notorious refusal of the Conservative government to compromise and consult scuttled that act – a tragedy for which we must all take ownership because it happened in the here and now.

Is there reason for hope? Absolutely. Many First Nations governments are developing on-reserve economies that take advantage of available natural and human resources. In British Columbia, which has something resembling a native school board and where the provincial government has made aboriginal education a top priority, the high-school graduation rate on reserve is 62 per cent. Nationally, on reserve, it is 40 per cent. Nationally overall: 88 per cent.

And the Supreme Court is increasingly stepping in as arbiter. In decision after decision, it is asserting that First Nations have a legitimate claim to a say and a share in the wealth of resources on Crown land. If Ottawa and the private sector will not negotiate solutions, the courts may well impose them.

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But progress along that route will be protracted, expensive and imperfect.

Are Canada's political leaders – Conservative, NDP or Liberal – willing to take a great leap, to negotiate with First Nations leaders as equals in search of solutions that benefit all? Are there First Nations leaders willing to enter those negotiations in good faith? Are there First Nations communities willing to endorse the solutions they reach?

Each side will have to surrender a measure of sovereignty. Each side will have to both embrace and then set aside the grievances of the past. Each side will have to sacrifice. Each side will have to recognize that the social and technological speed of change outside this dialogue is accelerating, that time is short and that windows are closing.

Each side will have to accept, as Mr. Rae reminded us, that the challenges of true reconciliation between native and non-native "are not buried in our past but are alive today in our own behaviour and attitudes."

There is nothing in this life harder to change than an attitude.

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About the Author
Writer-at-large

John Ibbitson started at The Globe in 1999 and has been Queen's Park columnist and Ottawa political affairs correspondent.Most recently, he was a correspondent and columnist in Washington, where he wrote Open and Shut: Why America has Barack Obama and Canada has Stephen Harper. He returned to Ottawa as bureau chief in 2009. More

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