National Day of Action draws thousands in support of First Nations

by Lloyd Dolha

The second annual National Day of Action by Canada’s First Nations people heralded the promise of possible years of protest as aboriginal leaders spoke out across the country to bring national attention to the issue of aboriginal child poverty.

In Vancouver, about 200 aboriginal and non-aboriginal people rallied with some of the key First Nations leaders in British Columbia at the site of the VANOC 2010 Olympic clock to show their support on the May 29th National Day of Action.

Chief Judith Sayers, a member of the First Nations Summit political executive, led the rally with chant of the national theme of “Our Children, Our Future, Our Responsibility.”

“One of our greatest assets as First Nations people is our ability to speak – to voice who we are and what we are and what we represent – and today we have to talk very loud so those people in Ottawa who make decisions about our lives can hear us,” said Chief Sayers.

“We want the prime minister and all his cabinet to listen to us and no longer turn their backs to us and move forward with us to find solutions for our children who live in poverty. So today, we are standing together to send that message to Ottawa, to Victoria, to people everywhere. Let’s stand together and build a country we can be proud of.”

Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs leader Chief Stewart Phillip pointed out that while Canada enjoys tremendous wealth, First Nations people continue to live in a state of institutionalized poverty that amounts to an enormous human rights abuse foisted upon aboriginal people since the founding of the nation.

“So we are here today to take the first step in a long ongoing protracted campaign that will go on from this day forward, this being the first political action that will extend throughout the summer and will continue on next year and the next,” said Chief Phillip.

“It is our hope that as we move through this campaign and Canadians become aware of the tragic dimensions of aboriginal poverty as it effects our infants, our young people, we will begin to march in solidarity,” said the UBCIC leader.

Phillip told the crowd that he hopes that members of a broad spectrum of groups such as human rights, justice groups, environmentalists, educators, the multi-faith community and organized labour, could swell future rallies to thousands.

“We fully realize and understand that as human beings, we must make this journey together and we must close this tragic chapter of oppression and poverty of indigenous people that has gone on for too long,” said the chief. “We can only do this if we march together shoulder to shoulder to begin to reconnect with each other and understand this is a human rights issue. It is the most disgraceful abuse of human rights in this country.”

Grand chief Ed John, a leader of the First Nations Summit and a Tl’azt’en hereditary chief spoke to gathered throng in his traditional Carrier language, then translated to English.

“I started out with the words ‘Survival, Dignity and Well-Being.’ These are the key words in the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. It contains a set of rights that we can hold Canada accountable to,” said Chief John.

The hereditary chief pointed out that 144 countries voted in favour of the U.N. declaration with only four member countries voted against it – the United States, New Zealand, Australia and Canada – to defeat the declaration earlier this year.

John said that all First Nations youth should have the chance to excel in life like Carey Price, the exceptional twenty year-old aboriginal from Anahim Lake, British Columbia, who tended goal for the Montreal Canadiens in this year’s Stanley Cup playoffs.

John said he would like to see Price on the Canadian national hockey team for the 2010 Olympics.

“That’s the kind of future that all of our kids should have. They should never have to be kept down low where many of our kids are,” said the chief. “We need to see them up on top like every one else. So I want to see that young man on the team playing for Canada.”

A grass roots group of aboriginal women took the opportunity to announce a national Walk for Justice in support of justice for the missing and murdered aboriginal women, which now number approximately 3,000 according to organizers.

Gladys Redek, the Walk For Justice leader and a relative of one of the aboriginal women who went missing on the Highway of Tears, made the announcement of the national campaign which will leave from Vancouver on June 21st, national Aboriginal Day, and plans to walk to Ottawa by September 15th, for a rally on Parliament Hill.

The Walk for Justice seeks to raise public awareness around the issue of the missing and murdered aboriginal women, as well as to gather further information about them.

“What we want for these women is justice and closure for their family members. We want equality and, most of all, we want accountability from the prime minister and (INAC minister) Chuck Strahl, and all the leaders of the country who are socially accepting their demise,” said Redek.

Redek said through months of networking on-line, organizers now have about one thousand supporters across the nation who are approaching their leaders and MPs, in support of the walk.

Redek was one of the women who took part in the Highway of Tears walk last spring to Prince George as part of a regional conference.

“Every step I took was painful because I knew that nobody cared what happened to these women. Well I care, and I’ve got a whole crew who care and we want society to care,” she said.

In a call for volunteers handout, organizers of the Walk for Justice are seeking nation-wide community support for fundraising events to help pay for supplies along the way.

“We’ve got actions happening right across the county, and I’m ashamed to say the only support we’re not getting is in Vancouver and I want that to change because we’re talking about the missing women,” she said.

Redek said the Aboriginal Mother’s Centre was the only organization to help the Walk for Justice campaign with the establishment of a bank account to help raise funds for the three-month campaign.

All cash donations can be sent to the Aboriginal Mother’s Centre Society at #208-2019 Dundas St., Vancouver, B.C. V5L 1J5, re: walk4justice or phone (604) 253-6262 or contact walk4justice2008@yahoo.

Liberal Indian Affairs critic Anita Neville said the National Day of Action represents another major embarrassment for the Harper government and another blow to Canada’s international reputation as a defender of the rights and quality of life of Canada’s aboriginal peoples.

“When the Conservatives cancelled the Kelowna Accord, and the $5.1 billion investment it represented, they delivered nothing in its place,” said Neville. “For all aboriginal people, and particularly children, this vacuum represents a tremendous setback in areas of infrastructure, health and education.”

Neville went on to point out that there are now more aboriginal children in care than those who were forced to attend residential schools at the height of that era. The federal government spends less per capita for education of First Nations children than for other Canadian children, and First Nations’ child welfare systems continue to be under-funded compared to provincial child welfare systems.

In advance of the day of action, the Assembly of First Nations issued a seven-point challenge to federal government;

• Reform the system by working with First Nations to set aside the Indian Act and replace it with First Nations involvement in local decision-making power and responsibility;

• Ensure results by implementing the recommendations of the federal Auditor-General on accountability;

• Establish fair funding by ending the discrimination against First Nations children by providing fair funding in core programs like education and child and family services;

• Commit to equality of outcomes by closing the gap in the quality of life between First Nations and other Canadians within ten years as agreed to by the leaders of the federal, provincial, territorial and First Nations government (in the Kelowna Accord);

• Focus on the future by setting as priorities education and revenue sharing from resource development to help First Nations build their economies and take their place in the Canadian economy;

• Respect First Nations rights and the rule of law by honouring the legal obligations set out in the treaties, the Canadian constitution international law and the Supreme Court of Canada;

• And, recognize the rights of First Nations governments in Canada by supporting the roles and responsibilities of First Nations as an order of government in Canada.

The AFN seven-point plan has since been endorsed by the Canadian Labour Congress and its 3.2 million members, KAIROS and it’s millions of church-goers, the Sierra Club of Canada, the Canadian Union of Public Employees and many others.

More than 1,500 people attended the rally in Ottawa, thousands more attended the rally in Toronto, and there were more than twenty National Day of Action events across the country.

AFN national Chief Phil Fontaine said he was encouraged and energized by the thousands of Canadians that marched and rallied at National Day of Action events across the country and the millions more who endorsed the AFN seven-point plan for change.

“Today was a tremendous show of support for a better future for First Nations children and a better life for First Nations people,” said the national chief. “But this day will only truly be a success when the government and the prime minister listen to this call for action from millions of Canadians and agrees to work with us on a real plan for real change and real progress.”