January 25, 2016 / 11:35 PM / 2 years ago

Top aboriginal chief to Canada's Trudeau: Words are easy, take action

Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (L) stands with Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde during the Assembly of First Nations Special Chiefs Assembly in Gatineau, Canada, in this file photo from December 8, 2015.Chris Wattie/Files

WINNIPEG, Manitoba (Reuters) - Canada's top aboriginal chief wants more action from new Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to alleviate crippling poverty and poor living conditions among the country's indigenous community, saying: "Words are easy."

Perry Bellegarde, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, the main political group representing the country's aboriginal people, said he would put pressure on Trudeau to deliver on election promises to his community.

"It's a travesty that this quality of life persists in this great, rich country called Canada," Bellegarde said in an interview on Monday after a shooting spree in a remote aboriginal town last week.

"Everyone's focused on La Loche now, saying this is not acceptable in 2016."

A gunman shot 11 people, killing four, at a school and home in La Loche, Saskatchewan, an impoverished northern community with high rates of suicide, addiction and unemployment.

A 17-year-old youth made his first court appearance on Monday, facing four counts of first-degree murder, seven counts of attempted murder and unauthorized possession of a firearm. He remains in custody.

"Words are easy to say ... there has to be these investments now to get us to the same starting line as everyone else," Bellegarde said. "We've got 10, 12, 13 people living in a two-bedroom house. That affects everything."

Bellegarde, who voted for the first time in the October election that vaulted Trudeau to power, said he believed the new prime minister "gets it," referring to the need to improve living standards.

Less than half of Canada's aboriginal people, also known as First Nations, have typically voted in elections because many do not recognize the government's sovereignty.

But anger over disproportionately high rates of violence against indigenous women, dire living conditions as well as resource development and environmental issues, prompted Bellegarde to publicly urge aboriginal people to cast ballots last year.

PLEDGED HELP

Trudeau, the Liberal Party leader, took power last year promising to tackle high levels of poverty, crime, bad housing and poor health among aboriginal residents who make up 4 percent of the country's population of 36 million.

In December, Trudeau promised a new "nation-to-nation relationship with First Nations peoples" and an inquiry into the high rates of missing and murdered aboriginal women.

The prime minister, 44, was speaking after a report found the forcible separation of aboriginal children from their families amounted to cultural genocide.

Friday's school shooting occurred in La Loche which, with the neighboring Clearwater River Dene Indian reserve, embodies the dire prospects for Canada's aboriginal people.

"We are living in Third World Conditions," said Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations Chief Bobby Cameron. "The mold in our homes, the cold that comes through the walls ... something's going to give."

Trudeau, who plans to run deficits to stimulate Canada's struggling economy, called Bellegarde on Friday to express condolences about the shooting.

The national chief urged Trudeau to demonstrate support by increasing aboriginal spending in his first budget, expected in March or April.

Trudeau responded by saying it was a priority for him to repair Ottawa's strained relationship with aboriginal residents, Bellegarde said.

Bellegarde said he wanted more spending on health, training, preserving languages, policing and infrastructure, such as housing, water treatment and recreation centers.

Infrastructure Minister Amarjeet Sohi said on Monday he had a mandate to deal with infrastructure that is lacking in aboriginal communities, such as clean drinking water, adequate housing and proper wastewater systems.

    “As part of our plan for the new money, we are going to be fulfilling the commitments we made in order to make sure that our First Nations … have the right infrastructure that the rest of Canadians take for granted,” he said, declining to say how much money the government would spend.

Additional reporting by David Ljunggren in Ottawa; Editing by Peter Cooney

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