This blog appeared as an aritcle in the Edmonton Journal on 24th October 2005:
The Government of Alberta is spending our surplus. Some spending decisions make sense – putting money into trust for research and development, increasing access to Universities and Colleges, supporting the further expansion of health care services, for example – and some don’t. The $400 cheques we will each get make little sense – an expensive gesture, rooted in a misunderstanding of twenty first century Albertan psyche. It is a very nineteenth century gesture.
What no one is talking about is the need to use this unique opportunity to tackle Canada’s shame: our treatment of aboriginal people’s. They are the fastest growing demographic group in Alberta, they will be a major factor in the development of the Alberta economy for the first half of the present century and they have significant needs.
Four in particular are clear. First, they need better arrangements for self government. They need municipal government like structure, responsibility and resourcing on reserves. This would help promote effective self government and improve accountability. Partnering with the Federal Government and the aboriginal communities to create a more effective governance for reserves and for aboriginal communities within our urban areas is a valid call on our surplus.
Second, we need to be imaginative and creative about the education of aboriginal youth. Aboriginal youth do poorly at school, take few places in post secondary education and have high failure rates. Using learning circles, which involve elders as well as teachers, and a strong support network, aboriginal youth can be successful and can achieve great things. Though most success is seen in areas such as social work, education and trades work in the natural resource sector, we need to shift the focus of education to technology intensive industries – the future of work. Over three quarters of all future jobs will require some post-secondary education for entry: spending significant funds supporting innovative aboriginal education is a valid call on our surplus.
Third, aboriginal health is poor. Whatever significant health condition you study – diabetes, heart disease, obesity – aboriginal people are likely to have twice or three times the incidence of the condition as their non-aboriginal counterparts. Poverty and a lack of education are the major causes. Investing in strategies that will dramatically improve the health of our aboriginal people is a valid call on our surplus and spending on prevention will lower future health care costs.
Finally, we need to do more to honour our side of our treaty obligations. A major concern of aboriginal people is the earth and what we are doing to it. Dedicating resources to sustainable environmental programs – restoring spoiled lands, doing more to ensure our clean water supply, protecting precious species – and doing so in partnership with our aboriginal leaders makes sense. Spending some of the surplus on specific “showcase” projects makes sense.
We look to significant increases in immigration to deal with a significant shortage of labour in Alberta, yet we neglect the development of skills and competences of our own aboriginal people. While it will take imagination, determination and resources to dramatically change the conditions of the aboriginal people of Alberta, it is something we should do to show the rest of Canada what a responsible, imaginative and effective twenty first century Government can do. It will also take courage.
It is a test of a visionary government that they tackle the tough issues as well as grasp at the low hanging political fruit. Watch carefully, since the test of how visionary our Alberta government really is will be what it does with the issues facing aboriginal people.