At last, reconciliation with First Nations actually seems possible

Posted on April 16, 2016 in Inclusion Policy Context – Full Comment
April 15, 2016.    John Ivison

Back in 1993, the London Free Press sent me to cover the recent construction of a tent village at the Canadian Forces’ Camp Ipperwash, west of the Ontario city, by a group of Stony Point natives demanding return of land taken from them in 1942 to make way for the base.

The defence department said it was pursuing a policy of non-confrontation and did not expect the situation to escalate.

That’s not how things turned out. During a violent confrontation in 1995, the Ontario Provincial Police shot protester Dudley George dead.

For many Canadians, the latest news from Attawapiskat — and the occupation in solidarity of Indigenous and Northern Affairs offices now underway in Winnipeg, Toronto and other sites — confirms that the forecast for the future is as bleak as the experience of the recent past: cloudy, with a chance of violence.

But amid the extensive coverage from the northern Ontario community, it passed unnoticed that the Chippewas of Kettle and Stony Point concluded a final settlement Thursday to resolve the outstanding issues with the federal government on the former Camp Ipperwash lands. The band received $95 million and agreed to a process for return of the lands taken 74 years ago under the War Measures Act. “Today, World War Two is finally over for the Chippewas of Kettle and Stony Point with the closure of the taking of our lands in 1942. We look forward to a better relationship with Canada going forward and today marks a new beginning,” said Chief Thomas Bressette.

The settlement shows that positions shift over time, creating the possibility of reconciliation between previously implacable opponents.

And that sense of possibility is in the air when you talk to anyone involved in aboriginal politics today. Paradoxically, given the news coming from communities like Attawapiskat, there is an optimism that change is actually coming.

Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould gave broad hints about these potentially historic changes in her speech during Tuesday night’s emergency House of Commons debate on Attawapiskat. She said positive steps were made in the budget, which dedicated $8.4 billion to native issues, but that a “national reconciliation framework” is required to “complete the unfinished business of Confederation.”

In an interview Friday, I asked her what she meant by that. The answer was so cloaked in the argot of aboriginal policy wonks — “nation-to-nation relations,” “new consultative framework,” “policy delivered in a horizontal manner” — it’s not quite clear what it will mean in concrete terms.

But it suggests a raft of measures that transfer power from Ottawa to First Nations, settle land claims and introduce a new standard of consultation based on the “free, prior and informed consent” commitment in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

The minister said she imagines a future where governments no longer take unilateral action, instead helping First Nations out from under the Indian Act when they are “able, willing and ready.”

“We are talking about a transformational shift,” she said. “This will be by far the most lasting legacy of this government.”

Ken Coates, a senior fellow at the Macdonald Laurier Institute, said he expects to see “co-production” of policy under the new reconciliation framework — following the precedent set, ironically, under the Harper government in the First Nations Land Management Act and even in the abortive education bill, where consultation was extensive if not sufficient for many native leaders.

The shift will see First Nations granted far greater autonomy, allowing the government to concentrate on “problem” reserves through a more regional policy.

There are already 100 or so First Nations that have opted to abandon the Indian Act, meaning they are no longer exempt from tax but have, Coates said, more freedom and choice when it comes to their own economic future.

I have worked for over a decade with indigenous communities, watching them rebuild, and I’ve witnessed many of them move beyond the Indian Act

Much aboriginal policy has been made in the past on the assumption that First Nations would be marginalized permanently, Coates said — yet many are now facing the challenge of managing prosperity, such as one central Ontario community that used to get by on a $2 million grant from Ottawa but is now on the verge of signing a $22 million a year deal with a wind farm company.

However, for every community that hits the jackpot there are a host of Attawapiskats. Their citizens have been let down by their own leaders and abandoned by non-native politicians. Canada’s rich history of mutual accommodation suggests we can change our opinions, routines and attitudes to live together more harmoniously.

At the very least, a more autonomous model of citizenship based on indigenous traditions, kinship systems and laws will leave no one else to blame if it doesn’t work.

Wilson-Raybould doesn’t see failure as the likely outcome.

“I’m incredibly optimistic about the future,” she said. “I have worked for over a decade with indigenous communities, watching them rebuild, and I’ve witnessed many of them move beyond the Indian Act, engaging their citizens in substantive ways.

“That is empowerment, and to me, that creates hope.”

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