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Idle No More protestors march and block the international bridge between the Canada and U.S. border near Cornwall Ont., on Jan. 5, 2013. (FRED CHARTRAND/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Idle No More protestors march and block the international bridge between the Canada and U.S. border near Cornwall Ont., on Jan. 5, 2013. (FRED CHARTRAND/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Chelsea Vowel

Idle No More only sounds vague. Let’s talk specifics Add to ...

Much has been said about the supposed lack of a unifying message coming out of the Idle No More movement. This despite the fact that the media are now able to to articulate some of the main goals fairly succinctly: stop the federal government from passing laws which erode treaty and indigenous rights and the rights of all Canadians; protect land and water; and reset the relationship between the Crown and indigenous peoples.

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Goals are meant to be aspirational, so perhaps what people really want to know are the nitty-gritty details.

However, when we’re talking about tackling issues as diverse as treaties, indigenous rights and “water, housing, sanitation, education” as Idle No More founder Pam Palmater put it in a must-see discussion on the whole movement, we risk being drowned in details.

If so, than we must seek a healthy medium; something between incomprehensibly vague and mind-numbingly specific.

Let’s start where I think pretty much everyone in Canada, including indigenous people, can agree: Something is terribly wrong and needs fixing.

Space limits my ability to boil down the long, sordid history that has led up to where we are today. You could start here and then move on to discover in how profoundly colonial the Indian Act is as a piece of legislation. Take some time to wade through each piece of legislation that sparked the original Idle No More teach-ins.

What I can do is attempt to give you a more specific sense of how some of these Idle No More goals would play out in real life.

To be clear, I am relying in great part on the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples of 1996, which is the most comprehensive and detailed study of the relationship between Canada and indigenous peoples ever done (quickly summarized in an Idle No More pamphlet ). It provides 444 recommendations for improvement over a 20 year period, most of which have not been implemented. Time to dust it off!

- First, there needs to be a commitment to renewing and restructuring the relationship. Indigenous peoples and settlers began this relationship as equals, and chose to make treaties with one another to enshrine two concepts: peaceful co-existence and non-interference. Along the way that commitment was abandoned by Canada, and instead almost every aspect of indigenous life became legislated and micromanaged by the department of Aboriginal Affairs to an inconceivable amount. Before we can undo that damage, the Canadian government must officially agree to go back to the original relationship of respect and equality, rooted in those principles of peaceful co-existence and non-interference.

This would probably require the passing of a law in which Canada recognizes the inherent right of indigenous peoples to govern themselves. While of huge importance, such a law would be only one small step.

Indigenous communities would have to decide how to organize themselves effectively to exercise self-governance. No, not every first nation community would be able to operate as a ‘nation’ in the sense of having a one-on-one relationship with Canada, but various communities could work together to pool resources, share responsibilities and take on that relationship. Responsibility for program development, delivery and implementation, now heavily and inefficiently managed by the federal government, would have to be devolved to those groupings.

- Obviously, none of this will work if these communities do not have access to more land and resources. Currently, communities south of the 60th parallel have only one half of 1 per cent of all land in Canada. One third of original reserve lands set aside are actually in possession of indigenous groups today. At a minimum, the other two thirds must be returned or replaced in some way. A new, independent specific claims process must be finally set up to address these long-standing issues. Unless this process is based on the first principle of respect and equality, it will fail. Improving access to and control over natural resources is another fundamental building brick in self-sufficiency.

- All of these steps will require steps to build up the capacity of indigenous groups to govern themselves, but none more than economic development . Self-government will falter and fail without strong, self-reliant economies. More indigenous professionals are needed in almost every area, but specifically in those vital areas of health care, education, infrastructure and management.

Some of you may notice that these recommendations seem to echo what the Conservatives have been saying, but you cannot forget that the most fundamental element I have identified is missing from government action plans: restructuring the relationship. Pouring more money into indigenous communities without addressing the issues of self-governance, lands and resources and capacity building will only result in more waste and frustration. Worse, it will perpetuate a system within which indigenous peoples are consistently at the bottom of almost every index of socioeconomic well-being .

In short, you cannot expect things to improve if we have no real control over our lives, our lands, and our resources. This is the sort of control that Canadians have for themselves, and take for granted as necessary, though its expression in our context will not look exactly the same.

What successive Canadian governments have repeatedly attempted is a top-down approach that puts the relationship last. Report after report shows that this approach has failed miserably. Canadians need to understand that the current relationship makes it impossible for indigenous peoples to truly govern their own affairs. What the wider public sees as an inability to self-govern is a nothing of the sort. We governed ourselves for centuries without interference, mitigating our differences via treaty relationships. We have not somehow lost that ability simply because we now share these lands with Canadians. Indigenous peoples have been prevented from exercising this power for too long.

Chelsea Vowel, a Plains Cree-speaking Métis from Lac Ste. Anne, Alberta, runs the aboriginal-issues blogâpihtawikosisân.

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