McGuinty gets credit for making native people a priority – comment – McGuinty gets credit for making native people a priority
November 30, 2007
Ian Urquhart

There was one real surprise in yesterday’s Speech from the Throne at Queen’s Park: the section on the province’s native peoples.

“The government seeks to forge a stronger, more positive relationship with Ontario’s First Nations,” said the speech.

“They do not constitute the largest group or the most powerful. They are, however … the first people to call this place home.”

The speech went on to promise that the government would work with the federal government “to accelerate the settlement of land claims” and “to improve the quality of life and expand economic opportunities for all aboriginal peoples in our province, both on- and off-reserve.”

There are about 220,000 aboriginal people in Ontario, most of them living off-reserve.

Dalton McGuinty’s Liberal regime is not the first Ontario government to target them in a throne speech and make them a priority; Bob Rae’s NDP government did that back in the early 1990s.

But McGuinty is the first to appoint a full-time minister of aboriginal affairs – Michael Bryant, an activist politician who can be counted on to tackle the issue with enthusiasm and dexterity.

There is, to be sure, a sense of urgency around the “aboriginal problem” that may not have existed in the past. This is exemplified by the ongoing Caledonia dispute, where an aboriginal occupation is rubbing up against the local non-native population.

But Caledonia is just the tip of the iceberg. Not far below the surface are a wide range of disputes, from land claims across the province to proposed new hydro projects that would impinge on aboriginal land, and from cigarette smuggling to the distribution of casino profits.

And, of course, there is the abject poverty in which most aboriginal peoples in the province live, to our never-ending shame.

The problem is, as Bryant sees it, that past governments “legalized” aboriginal issues; indeed, the aboriginal affairs secretariat used to be housed in the attorney general’s ministry. Nothing much ever got done because the lawyers were too worried about setting precedents.

Bryant knows whereof he speaks. He is both a lawyer and a former attorney general. But he is determined to bypass the lawyers and seek pragmatic solutions – such as financing off-reserve employment programs (one of which, 7th Generation Image Makers, was mentioned in the throne speech).

Another Bryant goal is the improvement of health and education programs on reserves.

The problem here, as the throne speech itself pointed out, is that “Ontario cannot do this alone.” The province needs the co-operation of the federal government, which is constitutionally responsible for aboriginal peoples.

The province could, for example, take over responsibility for on-reserve schools from Ottawa, which does an abysmal job in this area.

But reserve schools now receive substantially less cash per student than schools in the rest of the province, so the province would want Ottawa to top up the funding before the transfer of responsibility took place. Unfortunately, the current Conservative regime in Ottawa has shown itself to be insensitive to both aboriginal concerns (see the scrapping of the Kelowna accord) and to Ontario’s interests (see the current dispute over the allocation of seats in the Commons).

So the throne speech may be setting the provincial government up to fail. But the risk of failure ought not to deter the province from trying to make progress in this long-neglected area.

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