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Fontaine pleads for help in easing native anger
National native leader Phil Fontaine is warning Ottawa that progress must be made quickly on land claim issues in order to prevent a summer of protests.
In a speech to the Canadian Club of Ottawa, Fontaine said governments need to do more to address native land claims and deal with poverty in aboriginal communities.
The speech comes as Chief Terry Nelson, of Roseau River First Nation in Manitoba, issued a threat to CN Rail that he will attempt to blockade the rail line connecting Eastern and Western Canada next month during a national day of action on June 29.
Fontaine, who does not support the rail line protest, is urging non-Aboriginals to join natives for a day of peaceful protests instead.
"Our modus operandi to date has been respect, relationship building, negotiation, consensus and agreement,'' said Fontaine in his speech, entitled 'Canada and First Nations at a Crossroads: Confrontation or Negotiation?'
"We prefer to hold our heads high when dealing with the federal government of Canada. It is our way, we believe it is the way of all Canadians. We also prefer to ignore the negative, disagreement, confrontation or worse.''
Reacting in Ottawa, Indian Affairs Minister Jim Prentice said rail blockades are illegal, would be counterproductive and squander goodwill with non-native Canadians.
"I continue to say blockades are not acceptable or necessary because we are making progress on land claims disputes," he said. "I am fearful someone will be hurt. I call on all chiefs, the national chief in particular, to ensure that does not happen."
But a senior member of Fontaine's inner-circle suggested to the Winnipeg Free Press that failures at diplomacy were leaving few options open.
"We are at a crossroads,'' said the unnamed source.
"We have exhausted almost every avenue possible to work with this government. We want to work in partnership but nothing is working here so what does that leave as the next alternative?''
In his speech, Fontaine also referred to recently released Indian Affairs documents that he says provide proof from federal public servants that more money is needed to effectively deal with poverty on reserves.
"We're working very hard to convince this government that unilateralism will not work," Fontaine said in an interview Tuesday afternoon on CTV Newsnet.
"There has to be a very clear recognition of the rights of our people ... We have to apply a different focus for children in care -- there are 27,000 children in care -- so we shouldn't be talking about apprehension, we should be focused on prevention.
Calling First Nations poverty a "stain on Canada," Fontaine said there is a sense of desperation in Native communities across the country that can be seen in the high suicide rates, particularly among young aboriginal men.
"Poverty is an onerous burden and in our view there's no reason why such poverty should exist in a country as rich as Canada," he said.
Fontaine added that Canadians "don't know the full story" when it comes to aboriginal issues.
"They just hear comments about an awful lot of money being spent on aboriginal people or the need for value for dollar. Well, there has to be some balance to that and a sense of fairness, because we don't hear that kind of talk when it comes to the billions that are transferred to provincial governments; to the health care system, to equalization, to the fiscal imbalance, the billions that we're spending on defence. So why should that condition be applied to the funding of First Nations people? It's just not fair."
With files from The Canadian Press