The First Nations of Canada include more than 600 communities recognized as Aboriginal, excluding the Inuit and Metis. According to the most recent (2011) Canadian National Household Survey, 851,560 people have identified as a First Nations person, representing 2.6% of the total Canadian population. First Nations have a special relationship with the Canadian government as reflected in multiple Royal Proclamations, Treaties and Acts of Law. Despite these agreements outlining First Nations' rights and responsibilities related to property, health care, education and economic issues, among other areas, the relationship between the government and First Nations has historically been a difficult one and remains so today. These difficulties are rooted in factors such as the failure of successive governments to abide by signed Treaties, the damage caused by the government's imposition of Residential Schools that removed First Nations children from their families and culture, the ongoing substandard education, the lack of consultation with First Nations regarding the development and use of tribal lands, and an overall lack of self-determination.
These circumstances have caused the many social, economic, health and education challenges that First Nations members have faced for generations and continue to face today. First Nations are experiencing a housing crisis: approximately 44% of existing housing stock is in need of major repair and 15% requires outright replacement. In many cases multiple families live in one and two bedroom homes. Of the 88,485 houses on reserve, 5,486 are without sewage services.
Children are particularly vulnerable to the effects of the poor living standards on reservations. One in four children in First Nations communities lives in poverty, almost double the national average. First Nations children, on average, receive 22% less funding for child welfare services than other Canadian children and a First Nations youth is more likely to end up in jail than to graduate from high school. Suicide rates among youth are five to seven times higher than in the general Canadian population.
Health care is another challenge. Infant mortality rates are 1.5 times higher among First Nations children than other, non-Aboriginal children. Tuberculosis rates among First Nations members living on reserve are 31 times the national average and one in five First Nations members is diabetic. The overall life expectancy of First Nations members is five to seven years less than non-Aboriginal Canadians.
Unemployment rates on reserve are three times the rate for non -Aboriginal Canadians. Even for First Nations members who are employed full-time, the median annual income is $41,684, compared to the national median income for a full time worker of $50,699. This is due in part to development of First Nations land that has often happened with government leadership and involvement but without meaningful consultation with or participation of First Nations members. Such development has also raised concern within the First Nations community about environmental impacts.
In addition, significant damage to First Nations culture was caused by the federal government's imposition of "Residential Schools." Beginning in the 19th century and continuing until the last school closed in 1996, about 150,000 Aboriginal, Inuit and Métis children were removed from their communities and required to attend the schools. A core purpose of the policy was to assimilate students into English-speaking, Christian and Canadian culture. The damaging effects of this policy on the individual students and the First Nations collectively, remain.
As Jews with our own history as victims of discrimination, we are particularly sensitive to the plight of the First Nations. In particular, we have known the pain of being denied the opportunity to express our culture and faith and the corresponding collective trauma that occurs and persists even over generations. As Reform Jews, we have spoken in the past about the plight of Native Americans, beginning with our 1977 resolution that called for government funding to improve the standard of medical care, access to food to ensure a nutritious diet, and job training and opportunities. We continue to bear the moral responsibility to shed light on injustice and stand with those working to right historic wrongs. We are inspired as well by our tradition, which teaches us that "God formed Adam out of dust from all over the world: yellow clay, white sand, black loam and red soil. Therefore no one can declare to any race or color of people that they do not belong here since this soil is not their home." (Yalkut Shimoni 1:13).
The relationship between members of the First Nations community and the Jewish community has strengthened in recent years. The Canadian Council for Reform Judaism Social Action Committee has worked with Toronto-area First Nations members to educate the Reform Jewish community about the challenges facing the First Nations community and their root causes. The Bayview Corridor of synagogues (a group of synagogues from across the Jewish spectrum) created a program that brought together government representatives and activists to discuss problems such as housing shortages and lack of access to health care.
Relations between First Nations and the government are difficult but developing. A Truth and Reconciliation Commission established in 2008 is shedding light on the treatment of First Nations members who were forced into the Residential Schools system. In 2012, Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn A-in-chut Atleo developed an action plan that included a commitment to improve relations between the Canadian government and the First Nations through building accountable governance structures, improving educational opportunities for individuals, enabling self-sufficient communities, improving economic development, and respecting the role of First Nations' culture and language. A popular movement known as "Idle No More" is contributing to momentum for improved government services and conditions for First Nations members. There remains much work to be done.
Therefore, the Union for Reform Judaism resolves to:
- Support efforts toward greater self-determination by Canada's First Nations community;
- Commend the Prime Minister and the Government of Canada for their efforts to engage productively with the First Nations community such as the establishment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission;
- Call on the Government of Canada to:
- Abide by existing First Nations treaties and agreements;
- Create and implement a compulsory, nation-wide educational curriculum exploring the history of the First Nations of Canada, including the government's involvement with the Residential Schools system and other assimilationist efforts that negatively impacted the First Nations community;
- Support and help implement with full First Nations involvement the necessary physical and mental health, educational and housing systems to address existing shortcomings in these areas;
- Work with First Nations to mitigate environmental damage to First Nations land; and
- Ensure that no licenses are granted for the development or use of First Nations land without consultation with First Nations or without the creation of appropriate financial agreements and partnership structures.
- Encourage our Canadian congregations to continue to develop and strengthen relationships with the First Nations community.
First Nations Q and A
Who are Canada's First Nations? The Canadian government's Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development defines First Nations as "Status and Non-Status 'Indian' peoples in Canada... Currently, there are 617 First Nation communities, which represent more than 50 nations or cultural groups and 50 Aboriginal languages." The Assembly of First Nations, a national representative body, contends that there are 634 First Nations communities nationwide.
How many First Nations people live in Canada? According to Statistics Canada, "In 2011, 851,560 people identified as a First Nations person, representing...2.6% of the total Canadian population."
How are First Nations politically organized? The Assembly of First Nations represents the majority of First Nation members. According to the AFN, "The role of the National Chief and the AFN is to advocate on behalf of First Nations as directed by Chiefs-in-Assembly. This includes facilitation and coordination of national and regional discussions and dialogue, advocacy efforts and campaigns, legal and policy analysis, communicating with governments, including facilitating relationship building between First Nations and the Crown as well as public and private sectors and general public."
What are the socio-economic challenges faced by First Nations? In March 2012, the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) found "persistent levels of poverty among [Canada's] aboriginal peoples and the persistent marginalization and difficulties faced by them in respect of employment, housing, drinking water, health and education, as a result of structural discrimination whose consequences are still present" that should be eliminated.
Poverty : In 2007, the national Census found that " an estimated 40 percent of the native population lives in poverty, compared with 15.7 percent for the country as a whole. "
Education : An October 2013 study found that more than 48 percent of aboriginal students fail to complete K-12 education.
Health : Reflecting broader national trends, First Nations members living in the province of Manitoba have two times the rate of premature death than among the general population and eight years less life expectancy .
What is Idle No More? Idle No More is a social movement to advance the well-being of First Nations. It calls "on all people to join in a peaceful revolution, to honor Indigenous sovereignty, and to protect the land and water. INM has and will continue to help build sovereignty & resurgence of nationhood. INM will continue to pressure government and industry to protect the environment. INM will continue to build allies in order to reframe the nation to nation relationship, this will be done by including grassroots perspectives, issues, and concern."
What are the Residential Schools and the purpose of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission?
Residential Schools : According to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, from the 1870s until 1996, "more than 150,000 First Nations, Métis, and Inuit children were placed in these schools often against their parents' wishes. Many were forbidden to speak their language and practice their own culture. While there is an estimated 80,000 former students living today, the ongoing impact of residential schools has been felt throughout generations and has contributed to social problems that continue to exist."
The Indian Residential Schools Truth and Reconciliation Commission : The Commission is documenting what happened in these schools by reviewing records and hearing first-hand testimony. "The Commission hopes to guide and inspire First Nations, Inuit, and Métis peoples and Canadians in a process of truth and healing leading toward reconciliation and renewed relationships based on mutual understanding and respect."
What do First Nations seek in terms of resource development on their land? In September 2013, a joint statement was issued by leaders of the First Nations community. It read, in part:
Canada is promoting opportunities for Canadian oil and gas, mining and other extractive industries to expand their operations around the world. Many of these projects will affect lands and waters that Indigenous Peoples depend on as the basis of their economies, cultural traditions, languages and spiritual life... The imposition of resource development without the meaningful involvement of Indigenous Peoples, or against their wishes, is a colonialist model that has no place in the 21st Century. We must dispense with colonial attitudes and practices so that the human rights of all can be respected and fulfilled without discrimination. The UN Declaration [on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples] provides a roadmap for another approach, based on human rights, justice, non-discrimination and reconciliation - values that all Canadians can be proud to support. Such an approach is long overdue and should be embraced.
What has the URJ said in the past about Native Americans?
- A 1977 Resolution on Native Americans called for improved medical care, job opportunities and training and access to adequate food for the Native American community.