FORT FRANCES—The new harmonized sales tax (HST), resource-sharing, education, and a slew of other issues are up for discussion as First Nations’ leadership from across the province gathered at Couchiching on Tuesday for the 36th All-Ontario Chiefs Conference.
“It’s always a pleasure to play host to the All-Ontario Chiefs Conference,” Couchiching Chief Chuck McPherson said at the opening of the three-day event at the Couchiching multi-use facility.
“This is the second time in 10 years that we’ve had the opportunity to be the host for the conference and like I said, it’s a privilege and an honour to have all our colleagues here,” he noted.
The HST is expected to be one of the main topics up for discussion after Ottawa acquiesced to demands that point-of-sale exemptions continue for status First Nations’ people.
“It was the collective will of all the First Nations to want to remind government that they signed treaties, remind government that we do have rights, and First Nation citizens, along with the leadership, made their voice heard to the government,” said Assembly of First Nations Ontario Regional Chief Angus Toulouse, referring to threats to “shut down the country” if the point-of-sale exemption did not go through.
This exemption will be recognized starting Sept. 1. For July and August, status holders must keep receipts for the provincial portion of the sales tax for later reimbursement.
“And today, we have an opportunity to talk about that, and talk about how do we deal with the many other issues where we’ve had problems with governments executing agreements that they made in the past,” Chief Toulouse added.
Other topics of discussion will include land claims, education, and social justice.
“And what will come out of the three-day session, hopefully, is the kind of direction that gives the Chiefs of Ontario organization the mandate to continue to pursue government to do the right thing, which is to sit down with FN leadership whenever there’s an issue, whenever there’s a real contentious issue—like the one that Couchiching had here over the past couple of months,” said Chief Toulouse.
He stressed both the First Nations’ leadership and government need to “collectively and collaboratively” work together to find solutions for issues that have been around, in some cases, since the signing of the treaties.
Education is another topic the chiefs will be discussing here.
“Each [First Nation] community has a huge population under 25, which is our youth, and education is a big issue,” Chief Toulouse said, referring to the need for equity when it comes to education.
“Right now we still have our students getting the kind of resourcing that’s $2,000-$3,000 less than any student in a school board,” he charged.
First Nation leadership keeps raising this issue with the federal government, Chief Toulouse noted, adding even the province has recognized the need to invest and provide a safe environment for children to learn in.
“We’ve got many schools in many of our remote communities that are in need of much repair,” he said. “We need new schools. and we have schools that have been outgrown by substantial amounts.”
He recounted how, in some communities, the schools cannot accommodate all the children, so students have to come in shifts as early as 7:30 a.m., then leaving early so other children can have a chance in the classroom.
“When you have those kind of situations, it’s totally unfair to the child and to the community,” Chief Toulouse stressed, pointing out that because many of these communities are remote, it’s an “out-of-sight, out-of-mind” mentality for the government.
“We can’t have that in this day and age with the kind of technology that’s out there, with the kind of information that can be shared,” he argued.
And with the importance of youth at hand, Tuesday morning saw a presentation and report given to the chiefs from members of the Ontario First Nation Young People Council.
This presentation included four “strategic priority areas” which aboriginal youth have identified as being important, including building leadership, “walking the red path,” the environment, and youth engagement, explained Jocelyn Formsma, one of the NAN’s representatives for the OFNYPC
Formsma said she’s been “pleasantly surprised” at the reaction of those in attendance to what the OFNYPC has brought forward in its report, with people coming up to them, offering support, giving ideas, and talking with them about areas they could work on.
“I think it just shows the level of awareness that the leadership now has—that they know they’re moving forward and they realize that we’re the ones that are going to be coming afterwards,” she reasoned.
Also on the agenda for the days ahead will be talks about resource revenue-sharing.
“One of the things that we’re looking for is some discussion around resource benefit sharing,” said Grand Council Treaty #3 Ogichidaakwe Diane Kelly.
“I think it’s really important with the amount of resources that are being extracted out of our territory—the gold and so forth—we have to play an active role in that, so that’s something that I’m really looking forward to hearing the discussion from the chiefs that are here in assembly.”
While recent memorandums of understanding are a start, Chief Kelly said that there is “a lot of room for improvement.”
“I think First Nation people need to be recognized as rights holders,” she argued. “It seems to me, in this processes, that we’re treated as interest groups.
“We have a historic relationship here which continues today and which has been affirmed within our treaty, Treaty #3, and that has to be respected and implemented,” she stressed.
Of a number of key issues, resource-sharing is one which neighbouring Nishnawbe Aski Nation Grand Chief Stan Beardy also was looking forward to bringing up and discussing at the conference.
“We cover two-thirds of Ontario, and there’s a lot of resource development activities within NAN territory,” he noted.
“So one of our priorities, our interests, would be resource revenue-sharing and I’m hoping that there will be a lot of discussion, some general consensus, on where we are heading with that.
“The question of land use is very important to us,” Chief Beardy stressed, explaining they are in discussion with the Ontario government concerning changes to the Far North Act.
It’s crucial that First Nations benefit through such things as jobs, training, economic spin-offs, and sharing the distribution of wealth coming from the land, Chief Beardy added.
“We have concerns in that we feel, as treaty partners with the Crown, that we should have the ultimate say in what happens on our traditional lands,” he remarked.
“That is not to say that we are against resource development, it’s just that we need to have a say in what happens to our land because that is our home.
“We’ve been there for thousands of years, and we plan on being there for thousands of more years,” he vowed.
(Fort Frances Times)