Early December saw the last public hearings of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples. The Nation was on-hand to get the impressions of Viola Robinson, co-chair of the commission and former national leader of the Native Council of Canada.

“This has been one of the most rewarding and challenging experiences of my life,” Robinson said.

She said the Royal Commission was created because “Canadian people in general were getting tired of aboriginal people complaining and complaining.” At the same time the government didn’t seem to be addressing the problems. The commission was successful, she said, because First Nations people were involved in all the stages of its work. Sixty seven per cent of the commission’s staff is of First Nations descent, she noted.

Robinson was skeptical about previous inquiries into aboriginal affairs. “I was sick of it,” she said. “They don’t go anywhere and they’ve never been productive.” She said First Nations people have been studied almost to death and noted that there have already been good recommendations in the past. But she believes good will come of this commission’s work. This time, she insisted, the Prime Minister will receive the commission’s report and won’t be able to avoid dealing with it.

The problems are similar across Canada – suicides, lack of a resource base, dependency on government. Winnipeg is often called the largest reserve in Canada, Robinson said. “When you go out on the streets at night and see six- and seven-year-old native children, that’s one of the scariest things the commission saw. All these people falling through the cracks and no way to help them. The service organizations can’t access the dollars that would help alleviate the problem.”

The commission’s biggest challenge, as Robinson sees it, is dealing with the urban situation. Bands and First Nations communities at least have some infrastructure in place or links to other levels of government, whereas a First Nations support infrastructure is sorely lacking in urban centres. Friendship centres have been a big help, but she said they live from year to year in fear of not having enough funding. Some witnesses before the commission argued for status-blind services –

ones available to any aboriginal person, not a specific nation. But others argued for the opposite – services targetting just their own people. “Our report will reflect what we’ve heard,” Robinson commented. “Everything will be weighed.”

Robinson struck a positive note when she pointed to the achievements of communities such as Alkali Lake, B.C., which is a role model for dealing with suicide, alcoholism and family violence. She also cited the example of Grand Lac Victoria, Quebec, which has successfully started dealing with child abuse, incest and family violence. The Royal Commission will release new reports by the spring on suicide, residential schools, High Arctic exiles and extinguishment.