Top Issues for Manitoba’s First Nations

Commentary, Joseph Quesnel

Nationally, 2015 should be an interesting year on the Aboriginal file. However, what specifically should Manitoba First Nations leaders expect? What follows is a list of priority issues that should be confronted by Manitoba First Nations.

The first issue is missing and murdered Indigenous women. Manitoba First Nations leaders and several important non-Indigenous figures have called for action on this file, particularly through a national inquiry. They should continue that struggle to have this issue recognized at the highest levels of the land. In December, many Indigenous observers were deeply offended when Prime Minister Stephen Harper stated in an interview that the inquiry was something not very high on his radar. Manitoba's large Aboriginal population should make this issue a high priority for First Nations and Aboriginal leaders in 2015.

The next issue surrounds the whole matter of the First Nations Financial Transparency Act. Back in December, nine First Nations in Manitoba, mainly in the North, had failed to disclose financial information required under the new Act. As of today, it is unknown how many of those communities have changed their minds and are compliant. Regardless of that, Manitoba First Nations leaders should consider ending their opposition to this new law and instead promote it to their membership as a token of accountability to them. Manitoba Indigenous leaders should heed the words of Darcy Bear, Whitecap Dakota First Nation in Saskatchewan when he stated that "transparent and accountable First Nation governments support a strong environment for investment leading to greater economic development."

Manitoba First Nations in 2015 should also consider ending their boycott of Sun Media newspapers. The Southern Chiefs Organization, the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, and Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak called for a boycott back in November 2014. This may seem self-serving coming from a Winnipeg Sun column, but it seems a boycott is an overblown response to this issue. Rather than continue a boycott, Manitoba First Nations leaders should engage with all newspapers and encourage them to adopt accurate and balanced coverage of Indigenous communities. Sun newspapers are not perfect, but they certainly are not trying to convey racism through their writing.

Lastly, First Nations in Manitoba should continue their struggle for economic development through the adoption of urban reserves. This quest is symbolized by the struggle for the Kapyong Barracks in Winnipeg. The four bands vying for control of this lucrative property should continue this struggle for as long as it takes, whether or not it becomes an actual urban reserve in the end. Indigenous communities in Manitoba need to expand beyond their reserve base to enjoy the fruits of economic development. As many bands in Manitoba as possible should have an urban strategy for development to set them on the right course. Grand Chief Terry Nelson of the Southern Chiefs Organization has called for five urban reserves in Winnipeg in two years. That may be too ambitious, but it shows that some First Nations leaders are committed to progress on this file. That is very heartening.

Manitoba bands have many struggles ahead of them in 2015, but let's hope they make the right choices to set themselves on a path towards prosperity and self-sufficiency.

This op ed was originally published by The Winnipeg Sun on Friday, January 9, 2015: http://www.winnipegsun.com/2015/01/09/top-issues-for-manitoba-first-nations