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"Gathering Strength can best be described as a framework for new partnerships with First Nations, Inuit, Metis and non-status Indians," said Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development (DIAND) Minister Jane Stewart. The Action Plan, she says, was based on the recommendations of RCAP. "The Action Plan responds to the Royal Commission and sets directions for a new course based on greater cooperation with Aboriginal groups and provinces."
RCAP Commissioners released their report on November 21, 1996. The $58 million, five-volume document made more than 400 recommendations to improve conditions for Canada's Aboriginal people. The federal government promptly shelved it.
One year later, the federal government had yet to respond to the commissioned report. Minister Stewart was in Saskatoon on the anniversary, representing the federal government at Treaty Awareness Day. She commented then that although the government was taking direction from the report, a formal statement was not yet prepared. "We're not quite ready," she said.
A month and a half later, the government had formalized its position in Gathering Strength. Minister Stewart and the Federal Interlocutor for Metis and Non Status Indians, Ralph Goodale, released the Action Plan in Ottawa. Prime Minister Jean Chretien did not attend. The government officials were joined by respected Chiefs and Elders from across the nation. Hundreds more joined the event through satellite broadcasts to larger urban centres.
Minister Goodale called the Action Plan practical and innovative. "We all need to focus on what we can achieve as people together," he said.
The Ministers have stressed that the Action Plan is only the start of discussions between Aboriginal leaders and the government in rebuilding the relationship. "We want to achieve measurable results by supporting self-reliance at the individual and community level," said Minister Stewart. "We will work with Aboriginal people to support healthy, sustainable communities by improving health and public safety, investing in people and strengthening economic development."
But, the government believes that in order to move forward the past must be revisited. Therefore, it extended a Statement of Reconciliation to address the manner in which Aboriginal people in Canada have been treated historically. The Statement was also intended as an apology to the victims of physical and sexual abuse in the residential school system."If Aboriginal and non Aboriginal Canadians are to successfully renew the partnerships, we must first deal with the legacies of the past," said Minister Stewart.
The government is dealing with this legacy by committing $350 million for community-based healing initiatives. The fund will be operated by a board of directors who will be, for the most part, Aboriginal. Membership on the board is being determined by the Assembly of First Nations, Inuit Tapirisat of Canada, Metis National Council, the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples and the Native Women's Association of Canada. The board will determine project and program guidelines and will accept applications for funding from communities.
Although the healing fund will no doubt make an impact on healing in Aboriginal communities,
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many Aboriginal leaders say it is not enough.
Assembly of First Nations Grand Chief Phil Fontaine appreciates the government's commitment to collective healing. However, he believes that it does not go far enough in that the government is "not addressing the specific claims of residential school victims".
The FSIN addressed the issue of individual compensation at the winter session of its Legislative Assembly. The Chiefs in Assembly passed a resolution that mandates the FSIN to support individuals who are seeking compensation for their residential school experience in finding culturally appropriate methods of dealing with the legal system. The resolution also suggests having legal counsel consider the settlements that have been made to date and evaluate whether they have been adequate and appropriate.
The $350 million designated for the residential school healing fund must be allocated to an interim board of directors by April 1, 1998.