Addressing indigenous issues requires change at every level

Posted on January 1, 2017 in Equality Policy Context – Opinion/Commentary – The test of the Trudeau government on the indigenous agenda will be more about what it does that what it says
Jan. 1, 2017.   By BOB RAE

The election of the Trudeau government raised many hopes and expectations in the indigenous community and its supporters. For the first time since Paul Martin we had a prime minister who gave much time and attention to indigenous issues.

The release of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) full report set out an ambitious agenda, and much seemed possible. Before the Christmas break, Justin Trudeau reaffirmed his willingness to meet, to be held accountable, and to make progress on the recommendations and vision of the TRC.

There are some difficult facts to consider. The indigenous population, the first peoples of the land we now call Canada, number about five per cent of the overall Canadian community. That means that 95 per cent of the Canadian population need to be persuaded that more must be done, more money must be spent, more capacity must be built, more indigenous self government created.

This is not easy, and truth be told, we would not have made the progress that has been made without courts and tribunals insisting the Canadian constitution’s modest recognition of treaty and equality rights require a change in behaviour by elected governments of the land. It is worth recalling that every case brought by indigenous people has either been resisted or actively opposed by the Crown, and that even the residential school settlement and apology by Stephen Harper only happened because the alternative of going to court would have been even more disastrous for the government.

Some political leaders, like Paul Martin, made a point of pushing and prodding governmental bureaucracies in a progressive direction, and it is a simple fact that the Kelowna Accord would never have happened without his personal determination. It is a source of deep regret that his government was defeated before it could be implemented. The accord would have made a budgetary and policy breakthrough, but was cut short by Martin’s defeat in the House of Commons and the subsequent election in January of 2006.

There are some good explanations for the subsequent lethargy of governments, both federal and provincial. The first is money. Equality is expensive. The agreements that have been reached so far do not come close to closing the gap in services, conditions and opportunities. This is true for schools, for health care, policing, child welfare, and every other service of government. Departments of finance, and the ministries of resources are so far holding firm on their traditional fiscal conservatism.

The failure to “decolonize” properly has also meant that the majority has created a structure of governance under the Indian Act that was built to fail. There are too many small governments, with too little capacity, too little revenue, too little land, and no prospects for improvement unless a reserve is lucky enough to strike oil, find gold, or win the lottery.

Close to 25 per cent of First Nation governments are in some kind of “default management.” Revenue sharing is a phrase but it is definitely not a reality. The self-government negotiations that have either happened or are being discussed are taking place within a fiscal framework that assumes unequal and inadequate services. Many communities are balking at taking the next steps to self government because they refuse to implement poverty in perpetuity.

There is in our own history, and in our current reality, a racism that is finding its ugly voice in social media. Blaming the victim has long been with us, and it is still there. Ultimately it reinforces a dangerous complacency that thinks it can make the forces of change fade away. There are several things wrong with this scenario.

The first is that we are not just dealing with a crisis in remote communities — indigenous people are moving into cities and failing to deal with their issues will only create more problems.

The second is that much resource development now depends directly on the consent and participation of indigenous people and their communities. It is not about being nice. It is about doing what it takes to get people to agree to projects in their traditional territories.

The need for real change is not confined to federal and provincial governments or the people to whom they are accountable. The need to create another effective order of government — by and for indigenous people — will require change in indigenous communities themselves.

Both the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples and Charlottetown accord raised the issue of indigenous governance to the fore, and each time it was the refusal of settler governments to act that took the issue off the table. But moving on these issues will also require stronger regional and tribal governments — and a determined willingness to work together. The Indian Act has divided First Nations, and this is hurting everyone, first and foremost indigenous people themselves.

Bob Rae is a partner at Olthuis Kleer Townshend LLP and teaches at the University of Toronto.

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