FORT WILLIAM FIRST NATION, Ont. -- First Nations need to become more assertive in looking at ways to generate sustainable and independent economies, says the Nishnawbe Aski Nation grand chief.
That will be a primary focus of the 33rd Keewaywin Conference, which is being held on the Mount McKay Lookout, Harvey Yesno said in an interview shortly after the grand entry to kick off the gathering.
“We’re looking at the whole of the region and I think we need to partner with both senior levels of government to really address the infrastructure that will stimulate and foster investment,” Yesno said Tuesday.
“We’re looking not just at job creation but wealth creation and getting involved with some of these business enterprises.”
Creating favourable economic conditions will play a significant role in solving challenges such as housing shortages and high unemployment rates, he added.
Ontario Regional Chief Stan Beardy echoed those views and said communities, many of which have an abundance of potential assets, need to become their own economic drivers.
Treaty agreements put the responsibility on First Nations to financially prosper, he said.
“What we need to begin to understand is that handouts will never address our needs,” Beardy said.
“When you look at a treaty relationship we agreed we would be part of wealth creation. The thinking for First Nations people has to begin to change where all our activities in and around our First Nations and homelands has to be around how to generate wealth.”
The conference is one of the largest annual gatherings for Nishnawbe Aski Nation, and has delegates and representatives from all 49 member communities. MacDowell Lake First Nation is the designated host though the meeting is on the more central Fort William First Nation.
Those in attendance will hear annual reports, debate key issues such as health and education as well as hearing individual concerns from the various communities.
The theme of this year’s gathering is the rebirth of a nation, and how leaders can inspire the younger generations.
Yesno said one resolution is addressing the structure of the organization.
Currently, Nishnawbe Aski Nation is technically considered a corporation. A motion will be introduced to unincorporated and begin the process of nation building, including exploring a draft constitution.
Yesno added that one idea that should be explored in the future is having Nishnawbe Aski Nation take control over health services.
He said many people are dying younger, particularly as a result of the lack of services and challenges many remote areas face. That’s where a combination of traditional medicine as well as best practices, particularly in the field of mental health could solve problems.
Beardy said taking matters into their own hands will make it easier to create effective, long-lasting solutions to complex problems.
“There are drastic cutbacks in terms of essential services. A lot of First Nations have difficulty today accessing clean drinking water, accessing education for their children, accessing quality health care and these are basic human rights the main, dominant society takes for granted,” Beardy said.
The conference will run through Thursday.