Native people forge municipal links
TheStar.com – opinion/editorialopinion
Published On Sun Oct 23 2011. Christopher Alcantara
Policy-makers and academics have long argued that the solution to repairing relations between aboriginal and non-aboriginal peoples in Canada is to fundamentally restructure the relationship between aboriginal governments and the federal and provincial governments.
As such, much effort has been spent in the courts, at the negotiation table, in parliamentary committees and at federal-provincial conferences to find new ways to renew Canada’s relationship with its aboriginal peoples.
Despite significant advances in renewing this relationship, many obstacles remain, as aboriginal peoples continue to encounter governments that are unwilling to explore more radical reforms to the Canadian federal system.
Surprisingly, while much ink has been spilled about the lack of significant aboriginal policy reform at the federal and provincial levels, important changes in the aboriginal-non-aboriginal relationship are occurring at the local level. And these changes have been completely ignored by most policy-makers and commentators.
Indeed, over the last several decades, municipalities and aboriginal governments across Canada have signed a variety of intergovernmental agreements.
These agreements, which number in the thousands, address a variety of important issues for both communities.
The majority are service agreements in which municipalities agree to provide aboriginal communities with municipal services, such as fire suppression, garbage collection and snow removal, in return for payments that cover the cost of these services.
The rest of the agreements, however, are much more intriguing and paint a more optimistic picture compared with the situation at the federal and provincial levels
Many of these First Nation-municipal intergovernmental agreements, for instance, are memorandums of understanding and communication, committing municipal and aboriginal government officials to hold regular meetings during the year to discuss issues of mutual concern and to share information about their policies and government structures.
Other agreements seek to coordinate land-use policies, thus ensuring that municipalities and aboriginal governments zone residential lands adjacent to each other, rather than risking the possibility of the municipality zoning an industrial site next to an aboriginal residential site.
Some municipalities and aboriginal governments have signed agreements to cooperate and coordinate on issues of economic development and resource/land management.
The most interesting aspect of these agreements is that many contain what can only be called “decolonizing” provisions.
These provisions, for instance, explicitly recognize the existence of aboriginal self-government, title, rights and aboriginal prior occupancy of traditional lands. In essence, these provisions form the basis for a more radical and just transformation of aboriginal-non-aboriginal relations in Canada, explicitly recognizing the unique place that aboriginal people have in this country.
The result is a slow transformation of the aboriginal-non-aboriginal relationship at the local level, which is beginning to work its way up the intergovernmental ladder.
Indeed, some municipalities and First Nation communities are starting to cooperate with each other in other intergovernmental forums involving the federal and provincial governments.
It’s time for policy-makers to recognize these relationships by committing significant financial and organizational resources to help aboriginal governments and municipalities continue building these intergovernmental relationships across Canada.
Christopher Alcantara is an assistant professor in the department of political science at Wilfrid Laurier University. His research with Jen Nelles on First Nation-municipal relations appears in the latest issue of Canadian Public Administration.
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