Red Deer Advocate



Natives must map own fate: Harper

Creating better living standards for Canada's First Nations and Metis people must come from within, say leaders gathered for the first ever Alberta Aboriginal Think Tank now underway in Red Deer.

Governments do what's necessary to get votes, said Elijah Harper. Harper, 57, is the former Manitoba MLA who single-handedly snuffed the 1990 Meech Lake Accord because it did not guarantee rights for aboriginal people.

Interviewed outside the conference on Thursday, Harper said Alberta's combined aboriginal community is much younger than the national average - half are 25 years old or less - and those young people are becoming more educated than previous generations. It is the new generation of young people, not governments and other outside agencies, who have the will and the ability to create a better future for Canada's first nations, he said.

"(Canada's leadership) likes to portray itself that they're doing a good job. Actually, there's a lot of communities that are living in Third World conditions," said Harper.

"This present government, their aboriginal agenda seems to have fallen off the rails. It's not even on their radar screen. I think there needs to be a lot of work done. If you listen to (Prime Minister Stephen Harper's) mind, I think what he's developing is an agenda that will get him a majority government."

That agenda, so far, does not include recognition of the status or needs of aboriginal nations within Canada, said Harper.

Calgary-born Senator Thelma Chalifoux, a leader in Alberta's Metis community, said governments have continually failed in their efforts to solve the challenges facing aboriginal communities. Further, jealousy between various groups has prevented aboriginal people from helping themselves, Chalifoux told the gathering.

The biggest problem facing aboriginal children, she said, is that so many of them don't know who they are. Their search for identity is what drives so many to join gangs.

In recent years, that syndrome is not exclusive to First Nations children, said Chalifoux. The search for identity is hurting children from all communities, she said.

Growing up in Calgary during the Great Depression, Chalifoux said she belonged to a large extended family of people who lived a simple life, had fun and took good care of each other.

"Now, we have a large urban population, gangs, prostitution, you name it. Why? Because our value systems are not the same and our culture is changing."

Chalifoux urged the crowd, comprised mainly of aboriginal teachers and social workers, to understand their own history and to know what is in the minds of the children they serve.

She said the power for change must come from within the aboriginal community, not from outside agencies whose protocols often fail the people they are supposed to serve.

"This think tank is one of the most important things you have done in a long time."

The Aboriginal Think Tank, being held at the Capri Centre, was organized by the Red Deer-based Aboriginal Social Work Committee. Conference attendees are participating today in discussion groups on child welfare and education, law and corrections, health, leadership, community services and economic development.