By Tanya Talaga Queen's Park Bureau Jan 23 2012
There used to be eight elementary-aged kids who spent their days with family in small houses among the northern boreal forest, about a one-hour plane ride north of Sioux Lookout.
Most of the families eventually left after the portable school house shut down a few years ago but one 9-year-old boy remains, says Koocheching Chief William Harper.
“The boy hasn’t been in school for three years,” Harper tells the Star.
The school lost federal funding over a dispute regarding the community’s band status. There is no health care or any other social services for children in Koocheching, which is possibly one of the worst examples of the problems surrounding First Nations education and the hardships of northern living. Aboriginal education is the responsibility of the federal government.
While aboriginal children are the fastest growing youth group in Canada, many fail to graduate high school and they receive nearly $3,000 less per child than non-native children in education funding.
On Tuesday, Canada’s aboriginal chiefs will hold a national summit with Prime Minister Stephen Harper with the aim of strengthening a shaky relationship. This is Harper’s first formal meeting with all the chiefs since he came to power in 2006.
First Nations leaders say they are tired of ceremonial only meetings. Ottawa political insiders believe navigating aboriginal affairs is one of Harper’s most important future challenges — especially after the failure of the Kelowna Accord.
Brokered by former prime minister Paul Martin and aboriginal leaders in 2005, the $5 billion accord was a plan to create a proper school system and better the lives of First Nations people.
However, days after it was signed, the Liberal government fell and the Conservatives were elected. While Harper said he was committed to the accord, it was never fully funded or implemented.
“The true value of (Tuesday’s) meeting will be what happens as the result,” said Ontario Regional Chief Angus Toulouse, who represents 133 First Nations. “This cannot simply be a photo op for the federal government or a continuation of the agenda to avoid recognition and implementation of the rights of First Nations.”
He’s not alone in his viewpoint and some fear the day-long summit on Tuesday will not amount to much. The Aboriginal People’s Television Network reported on Friday the Prime Minister may not even stay for the entire day.
Anishinabek Grand Council Chief Patrick Madahbee can easily rhyme off a half-dozen reports, commissions and meetings that all offered plans and solutions but little else.
“I was involved in the constitutional process with prime minister Pierre Trudeau,” recalls Madahbee. The council is part of the Union of Ontario Indians that represents 39 communities. “First Nations were supposed to meet one year after the Constitution was repatriated to talk about jurisdictions — federal, provincial, First Nations. The conference never occurred. That goes to the heart of the problems we are having today.”
Jurisdictional finger-pointing and failure to act is played out in Koocheching, where the community’s band status has been in dispute for nearly two decades.
It is also present in the housing crisis seen in many northern First Nations, not just Attawapiskat. A lack of affordable housing means generations of families are crammed into homes not properly insulated or built, some without electricity or plumbing.
In Koocheching, Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) told Chief Harper land for a reserve must come from the adjacent First Nations community of Keewaywin, Cree Indians who received band status in 1985.
Last August, when Koocheching was evacuated due to forest fires, Harper says he had a chance meeting with Premier Dalton McGuinty in Dryden and he told him of the community’s lack of a school.
“The premier told me he’d talk to his office and one of his employees would get back to me,” says Chief Harper. “That happened.”
Someone from aboriginal affairs contacted Harper but then the provincial election was called and nothing happened.
On Wednesday, the day after the Star inquired about Koocheching to the aboriginal affairs ministry, the minister, Kathleen Wynne, called Harper.
Every child in this province has the right to have access to a school and services they need, says Wynne.
“My predecessors have both written letters to the federal minister. I will do the same, to encourage the federal minster and INAC to work with Koocheching to make sure their needs are met,” she says.
Letters don’t impress Chief Harper. “She said she’d write letters to the feds but I’ve heard that story before,” he says.