London Free Press – Jennifer O`brien
Chief Randall Phillips of the Oneida Nation of the Thames. (CRAIG GLOVER, The London Free Press)
ONEIDA – In the wake of a house fire that killed five members of the same family, Oneida Chief Randall Phillips is demanding the federal government talk to him directly about his community’s needs.
The chief of the Oneida Nation of the Thames, southwest of London, says it’s time for those
“nation-to-nation” talks with First Nations that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised last year.
Phillips said Oneida is crushed by poverty and has yet to benefit from the vows Trudeau made to First Nations when he was elected more than a year ago.
“No relationship is more important to me and to Canada than the one with indigenous peoples. It is time for a renewed, nation-to-nation relationship,” Trudeau said after he became prime minister.
“Those aren’t words to just be (bandied) about. They mean something to this community,” said Phillips. “We’re demanding a respect for the nation-to-nation relationship, exactly the way the prime minister has said. Let’s start.”
Typically, “consultation” with First Nations implies representatives from the federal Indigenous and Northern Affairs Department and Ontario’s Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation Ministry have met with organizations representing several First Nation communities in a region, such as the Assembly of First Nations, the Chiefs of Ontario or the London-based Association of Iroquois and Allied Indians (AIAI).
“The federal government, the Ontario government act like those are First Nations’ governance and they’re not. They’re organizations,” said Phillips. “First Nations have the right to be consulted. Not through other mechanisms. I’m not going to go through AIAI any more, through Chiefs of Ontario any more . . . I’m demanding (governments) bring their process to this community.”
He joined a growing chorus of indigenous leaders who have recently been criticizing the Trudeau government for a lack of action on year-old promises to start pumping more resources and funds into First Nation communities.
“It’s been a year,” said Phillips.
“Anybody can say kind words, but they don’t have any meaning,” he said. “I’m tired of talking. Let’s put some action to it.”
While awareness has grown of the dire circumstances in remote, northern communities, poverty is crushing in area communities as well, said Phillips.
“We learn how to survive. Survival is not living,” he said. “That’s what I’m trying to change here. We need to start living like the rest of the people,” adding that gaining jurisdiction over child welfare in the community is a top priority.
On Dec. 15, one day after a father and four members of an Oneida family died in a house fire, Phillips told reporters the home that burned was basically “kindling,” and may have been in need of upgrades. A year ago, the band council applied for money to upgrade 50 homes, but was denied.
Providing and managing housing on reserves is the responsibility of First Nations, while Ottawa funds building, servicing, maintaining, renovating and insuring homes.
Oneida has an on-reserve population of about 2,300 people and about 500 homes, more than half in need of major repairs, said Phillips.
AIAI Grand Chief Gord Peters agreed direct consultations are the “first step” toward true reconciliation with First Nation communities.
“We’ve been trying to get the federal government to stop one-window shopping. (Chiefs) are responsible for what happens in their communities,” he said.
But until First Nations have jurisdiction over their own child welfare, education, water and land, it’s not possible to have real nation-to-nation conversations, said Peters.
“Nowhere else in the world does anybody not have jurisdiction over raising their own children, except in First Nation communities,” said Peters.
“The argument is that we’re not competent people. We have no capacity to look after ourselves, let alone our own children.
“It’s a very paternalistic, colonialistic, racist ideology that says, ‘We’re going to have to look after the child, because you can’t do that.’ ”
In 2011, indigenous children accounted for seven per cent of all children in Canada, but almost half of all foster children, according to Statistics Canada.
Oneida has a working agreement with the Children’s Aid Society of London & Middlesex, requiring workers to check in at the band office before visiting families or launching investigations, but Phillips said that protocol is sometimes breached.
CAS executive director Chris Steven agreed there have breaches, and for that the society apologizes.
“The whole matter of First Nations’ right to care for their own children is a significant concern to First Nations across Canada and it is a concern that we share,” said Steven.“We recognize the role child welfare has played in disruption of lives and culture of First Nations in Canada and we want to continue working respectfully and cooperatively as possible with First Nations and government toward the restoration of the rightful jurisdiction and caring of their children.”