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The Parliament of Canada. (Dave Chan For The Globe and Mail)
The Parliament of Canada. (Dave Chan For The Globe and Mail)

David McLaughlin

We dropped the ball on aboriginal rights. Picking it up won’t be easy Add to ...

Charlottetown doesn’t look like such a bad deal now, does it?

Twenty years ago last October the most far-reaching constitutional recognition for Aboriginal peoples and first nations was rejected in a pan-Canadian referendum. A majority of Canadians said no to constitutional changes that would have entrenched the inherent right of self-government for aboriginal peoples in the Constitution of Canada.

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It would have given legal force to the most basic political demand of first nations, entrenched existing treaty rights within the Constitution, and actually created a formal third order of government for first nations analogous to the federal and provincial governments within the Constitution. It would have recognized constitutionally the rights of First Nations to “develop, maintain and strengthen their relationship with their lands, waters and environment, so as to determine and control their development as peoples according to their own values and priorities and to ensure the integrity of their societies.”

Prophetically, the single most important constitutional demand of first nations, negotiated by governments with first nations leaders themselves, failed to pass muster even within aboriginal communities despite their leaders advocating for it.

Beyond the Charlottetown Accord’s provisions for aboriginal self-government, their greater significance lies in the fundamental shift in the relationship it would have fostered between first nations, governments, and Canadians.

So, how instructive can history be to showing how constructive future events can become for Canada’s relationship with aboriginals? Is there a way to ‘get to yes’? The evidence is not uplifting.

First, there has been no lack of trying. Since Charlottetown’s failure, there has been a far-reaching Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, a unilateral federal law to recognize the inherent right of aboriginal self-government for existing treaty rights under the Constitution, a still-born Kelowna Accord, an historic apology on residential schools, and any number of conferences, meetings, and reports to address age-old problems. Instead, today, the relationship remains mired in mistrust and miscommunications with radically different expectations from all parties of what can and should be done. Meanwhile, many native reserves remain unyielding bastions of grinding poverty and despair.

Second, first nations leaders appear increasingly disconnected from their own communities. Never a homogenous political entity, it is worth reminding that the Charlottetown Accord was negotiated with the leadership of four separate aboriginal organizations. Some ‘Idle No More’ protestors weren’t even born at the time of those intense days of engagement and negotiation. Their allegiance to any form of structured dialogue appears flimsy at best. The sight and sound of established native leaders embracing a movement which they neither started nor control are revealing.

Third, a key determinant of wealth and self-reliance – natural resources – has become incredibly politicized. Some environmental groups and first nations have banded together in quests to halt development; resource companies have been clumsy or tardy in figuring out how to engage aboriginal communities; and saying ‘no’ to natural resource exploitation by native bands is far more likely to garner attention within the media and shine a light on other injustices and demands.

The courts have now become the political cockpit for furthering aboriginal rights in Canada today. Charlottetown wouldn’t have eliminated that recourse completely but it would have provided a mutually-recognized constitutional framework for progress and managing expectations. The attitudinal shift it could have engendered on everyone – leaders, bands, and Canadians – appears meaningful in hindsight.

Annual meetings with premiers, even crises meetings with the Prime Minister, are good as far as they go. But there is no reset button available that can be pushed this week. Arguably, all involved missed that chance two decades ago.

David McLaughlin was chief of staff to former prime minister Brian Mulroney and senior adviser to former constitutional affairs minister Joe Clark

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