Growing up in the 1950’s in Ottawa I never met a First Nations person. “Indians” lived “out there” – I saw Tonto on the television screen, but never a real person on my street or in my school.
That changed as time went on – a summer job in Fort Chimo (now Kujjuac) as a university student, and then many more encounters as a young law student and then an M.P.
Canadian public policy on aboriginal issues has gone through many twists and turns: the Trudeau White Paper, which met huge resistance from indigenous leaders; then the beginning of dialogue over land claims and even self-government agreements in the ’70’s and ’80’s; the insistence that patriation and the Charter at least protect “existing” treaty and other rights in s.35; the argument over Meech, huge strides in Charlottetown but then defeat in the referendum; the understanding of the Royal Commission but the painfully slow and inadequate implementation; the solemnity of Mr. Harper’s apology, but the realization that expressing the truth is much easier than the path of reconciliation: Canada’s course has been difficult, with some marked successes with treaties and land claims in the territories, B.C. and Quebec, and a young aboriginal population that is making breakthroughs in business, the professions, and education. But the pain of poverty, discrimination and disrespect for the first nations perspective continues, with the latest example of the Harper government’s determination to move ahead on education reform without real participation or engagement with the First Nations leadership.
The Supreme Court of Canada has advanced the issue in the absence of serious political leadership, but the recognition of the duty to consult and accommodate, the liberal interpretation of historic treaties, and insistence on a continuing fiduciary duty of the Crown can only do so much in the absence of political will and imagination.
Two underlying trends are now making the issue of genuine and deep reconciliation a matter of necessity rather than mere political choice: a continuing expansion of Canada’s resource industries to the heartland of traditional first nations’ territories, and a demographic revolution that is transforming Canada’s inner cities – first nations are no longer “out there”, they are now “right here”.
The challenge of reconciliation will require a clearer and stronger response from all sides. “Capacity building” is not a one way street. But there is an important paradigm shift underway: First Nations are taking an ownership stake in infrastructure, hydro, and other developments; companies are addressing issues of jobs, training, and equity participation; governments are beginning to address issues of revenue sharing. Living on the dole of transfer payments from Ottawa will never allow for the improvements in housing, education, and incomes which has to happen. New sources of revenue are, quite simply, essential.
More candid discussions on the social challenges are starting to happen, because people need to be ready for training and work, and that can’t happen if there is drug dependence or if young people are behind in education. It means the discrimination in funding has to stop, and it also means better use has to be made of these additional resources.
From the Ring of Fire to B.C.’s natural gas pipelines, economic development will only happen with the full participation of First Nations, Metis and Inuit peoples. Decisions on environmental review can’t ignore full discussion and community engagement. New forms of self-government will have to be found – the Indian Act will need to be replaced with better governance and a genuine sharing of power and responsibility. But let there be no doubt – these new partnerships have to happen. Canada’s future depends on them.
Bob Rae is a former member of Parliament and former premier of Ontario.