Next Ont. premier can't ignore issues: native leaders
TORONTO - Ontario's next premier will need to quell growing frustration and anger among the province's aboriginal communities to avoid the sort of occupations, blockades and protests that have marked the past year, say native leaders who are plotting their own campaign strategy.
Ongoing occupations in Caledonia, Ont., and the southeastern Ontario community of Sharbot Lake, as well as the Aboriginal Day of Action this past summer, have brought native issues to the fore like never before, said Angus Toulouse, Ontario regional chief with the Assembly of First Nations.
"There is a lot of frustration, there is a lot of despair, there is a lot of hopelessness and there is a lot of anger (among) our people and especially the youth who are lashing out,''' Toulouse said.
"Things have to change.'''
No matter who wins the Oct. 10 provincial election, the victor will face a hefty task in rebuilding the province's shattered relationship with aboriginals, Toulouse said.
The first step will be to working out how to share with aboriginal communities the cash the province takes in from natural resources on traditional native land, he added.
"We are not necessarily waiting for a handout,'' Toulouse said. "It is what is rightfully ours.''
Canadians have never been more aware of aboriginal issues, said Don Maracle, chief of the Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory, where protesters shut down Highway 401 and blockaded the Toronto-Montreal rail line during a day of national protest in June.
"In every place there is some issue with First Nations people,'' said Maracle. The issues range from unsettled land claims to mining in traditional lands, he added.
"It's something the province just can't ride roughshod (over) and pretend those issues aren't there. First Nations are now intervening and standing up to protect their interests and rights.'''
Political leaders say they are taking notice.
All three mainstream political parties are talking about aboriginal issues, sounding off about how occupations are handled and how to alleviate the despair and frustration felt by many in the aboriginal community.
"We all realize now, as a country, that we've got to rectify these issues,''' said David Ramsay, Liberal minister of aboriginal affairs. "I think the public pressure is there to get these issues resolved. ... The stars are aligning here.''
The Liberals have done as much as they can to lower the temperature in Caledonia, south of Hamilton, and bring the federal government to the negotiating table, Ramsay said.
The province is also working on a way to share wealth with aboriginal communities and has put Ramsay in charge of a ministry, rather than just a secretariat. But it remains clear "it's an area where governments have a lot of work to do,'' he said.
The Progressive Conservatives are vowing to improve living conditions in aboriginal communities by pushing Ottawa for help and facilitating land claims, but they do so with a caveat: illegal occupations won't be tolerated.
The NDP has promised better consultation with aboriginal people about how traditional lands are used and what permits are granted, as well as sharing the proceeds from any exploitation of their traditional land.
Conservative Leader John Tory -- a vocal critic of the Caledonia occupation since it began more than a year ago -- said serious problems like high dropout and suicide rates and a lack of health care are being overshadowed by illegal occupations and infighting between different levels of government.
"Caledonia is really not an aboriginal issue,'' said Tory, who has long said the Liberals should have put an end to the occupation when it first began.
"It's an issue of respect for the law and an issue of a civil society.'''
That's the kind of talk Haldimand County Mayor Marie Trainer said she wants to hear during the upcoming campaign, which gets underway in earnest Monday.
Development in Caledonia has ground to a halt because people are afraid to put a "shovel in the ground,'' while the "illegal'' occupation has been allowed to continue, said Trainer, who expects local residents will be asking tough questions at the door.
"Everything is just moving so slowly,'' she said.
NDP Leader Howard Hampton said pointed questions are also likely to confront candidates in northern Ontario, where the future of mining and forestry development depends on the support of aboriginal communities.
"What we've seen in the last four years is a bureaucrat sitting in an office tower in Toronto will make a decision that has very significant impacts on the lives of aboriginal people and there is no consultation,'' Hampton said.
"Aboriginal people are not prepared to put up with that.''