Need for Aboriginal Political Participation

Article excerpt

JEAN CHRETIEN

Prime Minister

There is a need for much greater Aboriginal participation and representation in Canada's political process and institutions. To achieve that requires dialogue, understanding, and support. Prepared text of speech delivered to the Aboriginal Endowment Fund Dinner, Ottawa, March 19, 1998.

It is a privilege for me to address this first dinner in support of the Aboriginal Endowment Fund.

As you all know, the Fund is being established to encourage Aboriginal people to more broadly participate in the political process. This is an important goal and the organizers of this event should be commended.

Why is this goal important?

I have heard Elijah Harper say that there is a reason for Aboriginal lack of enthusiasm for the federal process. He has said the reason is simple -- federal politics were not discussed around Elijah's family table with his father because Aboriginal people were denied a federal vote until 1960. In retrospect, this fact should be an embarrassment and something no Canadian should be proud of.

We had a collective responsibility in this denial. We had a collective responsibility in countless other exclusions. And now if we truly mean what we say about Aboriginal self-government -- Inherent Right and Treaty -- then we have a collective responsibility to ensure that Aboriginal people have a powerful voice in government; that Aboriginal people are entitled to a right to dialogue at a level table; that Aboriginal people are welcomed to the democratic process -- not as antagonists, but as partners, and friends.

In 1958, two years before it was legal, Senator Len Marchand, in defiance, cast his vote in the general election. Ten years later, he was elected to Parliament and went on to become the first native in a federal cabinet. We owe Len Marchand a debt of gratitude for his leadership and inner strength.

What Canadians have not acknowledged, and they must, is that Canadian history is full of Len Marchands. People like Poundmaker, Crowfoot, Jake Fire, Isaiah Smith, and countless others. They are part of what makes Canada strong. They are part of what makes Canada what it is.

I was once the minister of Indian affairs. Although I often joke about how difficult the job was, it was one of the most personally satisfying times of my life. The friends I made then are still friends -- 30 years later.

I used to wonder about historical promises made, "as long as the sun shines, as long as the grass grows, and the rivers flow." As I matured politically, I came to realize that these words -- these promises -- were not footnotes, but rather living pledges that we have made to each other; living documents that are to guide our relationship into the millennium. In other words, they were not the ultimate destination but rather the guide posts to that destination.

As you know, Canada is the Aboriginal name for "village." Within this village of ours called Canada, I have always maintained--throughout my entire political career--that we could be different but still be Canadian; that we could have different languages and different cultures, but still be bound by a common love of Canada; that we could proudly share our feelings of tolerance, our feelings of caring, acceptance, and understanding.

We have the Aboriginal Peoples Commission. And we have two Aboriginal people under our banner. But, quite frankly, two is not enough. The diversity of Aboriginal issues is so complex that more Aboriginal people are needed in Parliament. People who, with passion and knowledge, bring Aboriginal issues to the attention of the nation. I believe this sincerely and pledge to you continued effort and support to find and assist Aboriginal people to become candidates of our party; to win nominations; to win seats so that they might take their rightful place in the House of Commons.

That relationship, between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people, is constantly evolving. …