By Colin Perkel


THUNDER BAY, Ontario: First Nations communities struggling with persistent Third World conditions should begin seeing some help from Ottawa this year, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Friday.

Speaking in this northwestern Ontario city _ on one leg of a mini-swing through the region _ Trudeau defended his Liberal government’s approach to what many aboriginal leaders say is an unmitigated crisis.

“We actually are flowing money this year,” Trudeau said. “We are working very closely with (First Nations) on urgent needs and we’re investing in a significant way in respectful partnership.”

First Nations leaders say they like the tone of the government _ particularly in contrast with its predecessor.

At the same time, they say they want quick action and firm commitments that go beyond promises and good intentions.

“What we need the prime minister to do _ and he’s certainly making positive steps toward this _ is he needs to look at this as a major crisis in Canada,” regional Chief Isadore Day told The Canadian Press.

“A hundred First Nations or more in Canada are living in Third World conditions _ he has to make this a priority in terms of a crisis.”

Trudeau noted his government committed $8.4 billion for First Nations infrastructure, education, health and other areas in the March budget.

Yet he offered few immediate answers to the problems many aboriginals face, including a lack of basic health care and housing, unsafe tap water and grinding poverty.

Some wonder, for example, why the federal government won’t fund a residence for aboriginal students forced to travel from their remote communities to attend a First Nations school in Thunder Bay _ on the basis that it’s off-reserve.

“That’s exactly the kind of issue it is high time that Ottawa dealt with,” Trudeau said.

“We have to recognize that the relationship has been broken over the past years, and indeed decades, and it’s time to rebuild.”

Trudeau raised the First Nations issue by expressing condolences to the remote community of Pikangikum on the Ontario-Manitoba border, where nine people died in a recent house fire.

“The tragic loss of life is one that has affected us all and reminded us of how important it is to work with First Nations and indigenous peoples across the country to address the very real challenges,” Trudeau said.

Day said he hoped Trudeau would ensure some real and immediate action to alleviate the serious issues in many aboriginal communities.

At the least, he said, he welcomed Trudeau’s positive words on First Nations.

“The previous Harper government didn’t take that approach,” Day said. “It was just out of sight, out of mind and it was just total neglect.”