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Canada's First Nations at a tipping point: Baird

Kim Baird is a former chief of the Tsawwassen First Nation. - File Photo
Kim Baird is a former chief of the Tsawwassen First Nation.
— image credit: File Photo

As Chief Theresa Spence of the Attawapiskat First Nation in Ontario enters her fourth week of a hunger strike to urge the prime minister to meet with her, First Nations groups and people across Canada have mobilized support under the "Idle No More" banner.

Kim Baird, former chief of the Tsawwassen First Nation for 14 years, said she's not surprised people are expressing their dissatisfaction to the status quo.

"The level of poverty and low socioeconomic conditions in the country for First Nations was leading to a tipping point."

Baird would know. Until 2009, the Tsawwassen lived as a federally administered reserve like at least 600 others across Canada. But in 2007, Baird led her people in signing an urban treaty with the province and the federal government that abolished their reserve status, increased their land base, and allowed for self-governance as a municipal entity under provincial land-use laws. As a result, TFN is no longer subject to the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development like Attawapiskat. That doesn't mean Baird no longer sympathizes with their plight. She said people typically don't understand or are unaware of the conditions of many First Nations communities in Canada and feel helpless to change it.

"It seems so complicated and so much to overcome it's a really daunting prospect for a lot of people. If there were an easy solution, it would have been identified already."

Baird said many Canadians lack a fundamental understanding of civic affairs, let alone the issues facing reserves. She said part of that reason is these issues aren't taught in school until a post secondary level.

"To look at the history of aboriginal relations in Canada and the colonization and the dreadful impacts of that and how that infrastructure fits in with the broader Canadian context is specialized university courses."

Baird said one issue that is often misunderstood is the disparity between Chief Spence's nearly $70,000 salary and the poverty faced by her people.

"If you want to attract good leaders to lead you out of that poverty, you need to provide them with a salary they can support their family. Otherwise they'll go move somewhere else," she said, adding she thinks it's sad First Nations people believe their leaders shouldn't be paid as well as other leaders.

One number consistently saddled with Attawapiskat is the $90 million the reserve has received in federal funding over the past five years. Baird points out that many reserves, particularly in remote areas of Canada, do not enjoy the same service levels and infrastructure most municipalities take for granted.

"If you're in a remote First Nation community, I can't imagine the challenges of retaining people for the services that are needed," she said. "When you look at the services on a per-person basis, you'll find it's a lower figure for First Nations persons than most Canadians enjoy."

And even if First Nation councils allocate every federal dollar properly, they don't generally match the needs of the people since those programs and services aren't specific enough.

"First Nation councils don't get to govern, they get to administer Indian Affairs programs and services that don't work for our communities."

With independence comes responsibility, however, which is why TFN has begun some of the most ambitious economic development on First Nations land in Canada. Those plans include an indoor mall with 17 retailers covering 1.2 million square feet and three other major retail stores on another 600,000 square feet. Baird says both the treaty and their economic plans have been controversial.

"Not every other First Nation think it's a good model. Only time will tell."

Baird has suggested a public dialogue on aboriginal affairs is going to have to happen to find a way to provide First Nations people with the tools to prosper.

"We need to have an understanding that the status quo is unsustainable, financially and otherwise. So if we don't restructure this—and I'm  conscious about taxpayers thinking First Nations are a burden—it will continue to be a drain rather than unleashing economic potential.

"In a country as wealthy as Canada, there has to be a way."

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