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Bob Rae: Self-government will require real leadership on all sides

Bob Rae is former premier of Ontario and a former Member of Parliament. Mr Rae is a partner at Olthuis Kleer Townshend, a law firm that acts for First Nations across Canada, and teaches at the University of Toronto School of Public Policy and Governance.

The famous American commentator Walter Lippmann once summed up public opinion as "the pictures in our heads." Prime Minister Stephen Harper gave us all some insight into the picture in his head when he made his famous comment that "Canada has no history of colonialism". What he might have been thinking was that Canadian troops didn't fight overseas in various wars to conquer foreign territory. But what he was forgetting is that Canada itself is the product of colonialism. That is what an important part of our history is, remnants of empire fighting over land that had been occupied for thousands of years by indigenous people. For many Canadians that is what our present is as well.

A year from now there will be a march from Paris to Rome. The marchers will be indigenous people from the Americas. They will be going to Rome to ask the Pope to repudiate the Papal Bulls that blessed the "civilizing missions" that justified the extermination of indigenous people, their civilizations, cultures, and governments. Let's hope the Holy Father is listening.

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This is the nightmare of violence and repression from which all First Nations are seeking to awaken. The remnants of this colonialism are more than just memories. They are memorialized in the Indian Act, the residential schools, the provincial legislation that assumes aboriginal people, their governments, and their jurisdiction don't exist, that denies to this very day concepts of shared sovereignty and aboriginal self-government.

In words that haunt today, Ian Scott, then Ontario's Attorney General, spoke these words in 1986. He was asking how Ontarians in a quarter century might look back on a period of accomplishment and reconciliation:

"The important thing, and one of the ways we will be judged, is how we deal with the three critical issues on the agenda for native people.

The first is the entrenchment of aboriginal self-government in our Constitution, a matter that must be resolved next year.

The second is the introduction of self-government systems to the native people, in the bands on the reserve and off the reserve, in a way that meets their needs, a terribly difficult talk which has already begun under this government with the Nishnawbe-Aski nation negotiations.

The third thing is developing a way to bring the public services to which all Ontario people are entitled because they are Ontarians to the native people, wherever they may live, in a delivery method that is satisfactory to their needs and that responds to their concerns."

Looking at ourselves in the mirror, none of these three things has happened. What has taken place is different – in the absence of political progress, First Nations have turned to the courts, who have responded by asserting aboriginal title and calling on governments to negotiate. Laboriously, painfully, and at the continuing price of "extinguishment" as Hayden King pointed out a few days ago, there have been some negotiations in Quebec, Newfoundland and Labrador, B.C., and in the Territories producing negotiations that are the subject of current litigation. At the same time, from Ontario to Alberta, the old treaties have been used as a cover for inaction. First Nations lack the means, the land, the revenue, the capacity, to govern themselves. It is more than a sad commentary. It is a national disgrace.

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We're about to hear from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and that will shock Canadians with its description of the profound racism that is deeply imbedded in our past and, sad to say, our present. There will be a call to action. Who will respond? Provincial and federal leaders need to come to grips with this, our most compelling national issue. The lack of education, health, housing, are all symptoms of a deeper problem: powerlessness. We need to put power, responsibility and accountability in post-colonial governments. The federal and provincial institutions of modern colonialism have to be removed from the backs of people whose rights have never received the political recognition they need and deserve.

It will require real leadership on all sides to get there, a leadership that will take historical understanding, legal opinion, and moral outrage and turn them into a political agenda worthy of the name. We cheer Mandela and we weep while watching Selma. Cheers and tears are not enough. It's past time we created a modern, workable agenda that admits what we've tried before has failed. The picture in the heads of most Canadians is a reflection in a rear view mirror. It's time our leaders stopped counting heads, and started trying to turn them.

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