The bills for treatment of aboriginal people are coming due

Posted on April 15, 2016 in Equality Policy Context – Opinion/Editorials – There will be significant costs attached to this week’s ruling declaring Metis and non-status Indians fall under federal jurisdiction. But this issue can no longer be punted down the road.
Apr 15 2016.   Editorial

Canada has built up a heavy bill for its shoddy and often shameful treatment of indigenous people over the past two centuries and more. The bills are now falling due, and the Supreme Court of Canada made it clear this week that they will be even bigger than anyone thought.

By declaring finally that Métis and non-status Indians fall under the constitutional jurisdiction of the federal government, the court has set the stage for those groups to negotiate rights, treaties and services with Ottawa. There will be costs attached – likely very significant costs. But this issue can no longer be punted down the road.

For many decades, the federal and provincial governments have refused responsibility for two of the most disadvantaged groups in the country – the 451,000 Métis people and roughly 214,000 non-status Indians. That left them, as Justice Rosalie Abella wrote this week on behalf of a unanimous court, in a “jurisdictional wasteland with significant and obvious disadvantaging consequences.”

In plainer language, they were the victims of buck-passing by various governments, all of which told them to try their luck with the other one. They had no legal way of forcing governments to talk to them, and lacked the benefits provided to the status Indians and Inuit who were regarded as “Indians” as defined in Canada’s founding Constitution in 1867.

They were left without reserves, the ability to make land claims, or the right to demand federal services like housing and health care tailored to their needs. They did not benefit from the tax exemption granted to those recognized as “Indians.” Yet they were subjected to some of the worst practices perpetrated against indigenous peoples, including seeing their children sent off to residential schools.

It isn’t clear how the Métis and non-status Indians will use their newly won leverage with Ottawa. Nor did the Supreme Court order the government to provide any specific services to them. But there is every reason to think that the benefits they may claim won’t come cheaply. And they shouldn’t.

Manitoba Métis leader David Chartrand said his people “would never want to bankrupt our own country we love.” But the need is so great, and action has been delayed so long, that the costs attached to recognizing the new rights are bound to be sizable.

To his credit, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau welcomed the Supreme Court ruling and promised “to figure out what the path is forward” along with native leaders.

Although this week’s court ruling was the culmination of a 17-year legal fight, it could not have come at a better time. Trudeau has made opening a new chapter in relations with indigenous peoples a central theme of his new government, and expectations for improvement have never been higher.

The Liberal government set aside $8.4 billion in new money in its first budget to improve services for aboriginal people – everything from education to clean drinking water and family services. Now more than 650,000 additional people will have legal claim on such benefits, and may launch costly land claims as well.

Those costs should not feared. The problems plaguing many aboriginal communities are a drag on the entire economy and society. If they are in a better position to contribute, all of Canada will benefit.

The spending needed to address these issues should be seen as an investment in the future, much more than as making up for past wrongs. Aside from elementary justice and legal obligation, done right it should be a way of making aboriginal people part of the solution in building a more prosperous country.

The Supreme Court made that clearer than ever this week, and the Trudeau government should seize the moment by quickly establishing a dialogue with the groups that are now undeniably part of its responsibilities.

< >

Tags: , , , , , ,

This entry was posted on Friday, April 15th, 2016 at 5:55 pm and is filed under Equality Policy Context. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

Leave a Reply