Closing the Gap

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AFN Chief Perry Bellegarde speaking at U of R. Photo - Jennifer Marshall

AFN Chief Perry Bellegarde speaking at U of R. Photo – Jennifer Marshall

AFN Chief Perry Bellegarde delivers lecture on campus

Jennifer Marshall – Contributor

It is difficult to imagine living in a place where you must boil your water before you drink it, funding for basic education is deficient, there are little to no prevention strategies for suicide or drug abuse and there is no access to detox and wellness centers. This does not sound like a reality that should exist within a prosperous country like Canada, but this is a reality for many First Nations.

As part of his tour to universities across Canada, Perry Bellegarde, Chief of the Assembly of First Nations (AFN), paid the University of Regina an important visit. In an effort to spread awareness about a vast gap between First Nations and the rest of Canada in terms of quality of life, a document titled Closing the Gap has been created. This document details the priorities of Canadian First Nations in the upcoming Federal Election by proposing important changes in six main areas.

Firstly, AFN addresses the need to strengthen First Nations families and communities, and offers a list of initiatives for the soon to be newly-elected federal government. The document proceeds to make recommendations for sharing and equitable funding in terms of land and resources, upholding the rights of First Nations peoples, respecting the environment, protecting and revitalizing indigenous languages, and fully adopting the recommendations that were put forth in June by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada.

In an effort to instigate and inspire change, Closing the Gap has been submitted to all of Canada’s premiers. It is Chief Bellegarde and the AFN’s hope that these issues will finally be given genuine priority in the Provincial and Federal governments, and in the hearts of all Canadians.

Chief Bellegarde argues that along with action from the Provincial and Federal governments, the key to closing the gap (and eliminating racism and intolerance towards First Nations) is education. The University of Regina has taken several steps towards broadening student awareness and understanding of First Nations history.

An art installation created by BC First Nations artist Carey Newman titled the Witness Blanket made its home in the U of R halls last winter, addressing uncomfortable truths about residential schools in Canada. Most recently, U of R hosted the annual Glen Anaquod Memorial Tipi Raising Competition, coordinated by the Aboriginal Student Centre. Perhaps most importantly, the university has made it mandatory for all arts students to take at least one Indigenous Studies course to complete their degree.

Indigenous student Kecia Cook attended Chief Bellegarde’s lecture.

“I think it’s absolutely vital for all students to complete at least one indigenous studies class,” Cook told the Carillon. “Indigenous people are and always have been a part of Canada’s history and will continue to be.”

Also in attendance was U of R student Mike Jamin, who is optimistic that “if we take the time to partake in each others’ activities and events [First Nations and non-First Nations], we will hopefully have a better understanding of each other, therefore ‘closing the gap.’”

First Nations peoples face racism, stereotyping and intolerance every day, but it is important, as Nursing student Courtney Hackman reflects, to remember that indigenous peoples are still reeling from the impact of residential schools, as well the Indian Act, which continues to create barriers and difficulties for many First Nations.

As a Canadian University with a close partnership with the First Nations University of Canada, the attempt for better mutual understanding between cultures is evident at U of R, but for some students, the responsibility does not end there. It is clear that we need to do more to address and bridge “the gap.”

For more information on the AFN and Closing the Gap you can visit www.afn.ca.

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