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We asked, you voted: What are the next eight discussions Canada needs to have?

We had a live discussion Tuesday at 12 p.m. ET on one of your top choices: The future of First Nations.

What can be done to improve the academic performance of First Nation children who attend school on reserve? What kind of innovations need to happen in local governance? What are some of the biggest challenges still faced by First Nations in Canada, and what can the government do about it?

Tom Flanagan and Frances Abele took your questions.

Dr. Flanagan is the former Director of Research for the Reform Party of Canada, former Chief of Staff in the Office of the Leader of the Opposition, and the former Manager of the National Campaign of the Conservative Party of Canada. His scholarly work has focused on First Nations and Metis rights in Western Canada. He has written several books on the subject.

Dr. Abele was Deputy Director of Research for the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, and has conducted research on Canada-Indigenous relations for three decades. She has worked with a range of Indigenous organizations and communities, including work on the Indian Act for the National Centre on First Nations Governance. She is currently a Professor in the School of Public Policy and Administration at Carleton University.

You can read a transcript of the discussion below:

Natalie Stechyson: Welcome to today's live chat on the future of First Nations- the sixth topic in an eight-part series on the next discussions you think Canada needs to have. I'm Natalie Stechyson - one of The Globe's online editors. I'll be hosting today's chat with Tom Flanagan and Frances Abele. We'll be getting under way momentarily. In the meantime, please start submitting your questions.

Frances Abele: Hello.

Natalie Stechyson: Thanks for joining us, Dr. Abele.

Natalie Stechyson: Before we get started, I'd like to add that the AFN was unable to join us today, but we will be coordinating another live discussion with Shawn Atleo for some time in the new year.

Tom Flanagan: Hi everyone. I'm online now.

Natalie Stechyson: Thanks for joining. Let's get started. Why are reserves important to First Nations?

Tom Flanagan: Reserves are lands they can call their own. But ironically First Nations, for the most part, don't own these lands; they are held by the federal Crown for the use and benefit of the First Nations. My recent book, BEYOND THE ACT, proposes a method for allowing those First Nations who wish to own their reserves to do so.

Frances Abele: The reserves are, first of all, home. Though life on reserves has suffered from heavy administration and from the small size, economic problems, and so on ... they remain home base. Their role for the whole nation is thus very important.

Natalie Stechyson: We have a number of reader comments now.

Comment From Terry: There seems to be a wide spread in how well various first nations bands are doing in terms of development. what are the factors influencing which do well and which continue to suffer?

Frances Abele: The strength of First Nations governing institutions isvery important, and social capital

Tom Flanagan: All bands are labouring under a very unfavourable proprty rights regime. In this difficult environment, the ones that do better are usually those with vigorous, enlightened leadership. I would hope we could improve the legal environment so ordinary people could succeed, not just outstanding leaders.

Frances Abele: There are also differences in economic circumstances --location, resources available, for example. The diversity ofcircumstances makes generatlization difficult.

Comment From Ron: It seems property rights and rule of law are two major ways to solve many problems natives face today. Who has been a bigger obstacle to such reform: the federal government, or Aboriginal leaders/communities?

Frances Abele: There is a substantial grass roots movement under way for the development of good governance on reserves. Federal responses must be keyed to these grassroots changes.

Tom Flanagan: Good, question, Ron. Probably everyone has been at fault in the past. I think the way forward is to create voluntary options, so that First Nations can progress at their own rate.

Frances Abele: The National Centre on First Nations governance (with a great website) is full of useful information and ideas on this question

Comment From Cynthia Robertson: The Indian Act has been seen as one of the most significant impediments to development in FN communities, how significant is the resistance to the potential for repealing this Act?

Frances Abele: The resistance by First Nations to repeal of the Act comes from a realistic fear that changes initiated "from above" may cause them to lose, not gain, more control. Land rights are incredibly important.

Tom Flanagan: I don't think it's realistic to talk about repealing the entire Indian Act. There's not enough agreement among First Nations themselves about what should replace it. I would advocate supplementary legislation to create new voluntary alternatives, as we've been doing for the last two decades, e.g., allowing bands to levy propoerty taxes on leaseholds.

Comment From Ross: Initiatives such as the use of leasing, the First Nations Land Management Act and variations on fee simple ownership are all well and good, but it's usually the First Nations south of 50, close to markets that have the incentive to participate, and do so. What can the other, often remote, 80% of First Nations do to generate economic development in the absence of resource projects in their backyard?

Tom Flanagan: Ross, I wish I had a good answer for you. The situation of many of these bands is heartbreaking. Some can take advantage of local resource developments, as is happening in northern Alberta. The much-maligned tar sands are perhaps the biggest employer of native people in the country, and Fran Abele had something to do with that. But that doesn't help reserves where nothing at all is happening in the neighborhood.

Frances Abele: I agree with you about the difficulty, and the importance of recognizing the distinct circumstances of northern reserves. There is no simple answer, particularly since many northern areas have a general problem with development --given the structure of the Canadian economy.

Comment From Devin B.: With significant investments in the renewable energy sector in jurisdictions such as Ontario, do you believe there will be significant opportunities for Aboriginal participation? Do you foresee problems arising from the constitutional duty to consult when developers propose to build renewable energy projects on First Nation lands?

Frances Abele: I think part of the answer for the northern reserves lies in their finding ways to work together, across sometimes considerable distances, to develop economic strategies. This in turn usually involves long-term funding for the process, and supportive programming.

Frances Abele: I see the duty to consult as an opportunity. Canada as a whole needs better development planning practices, and especially, better capacity for long-term thinking.

Tom Flanagan: Regarding renewable energy, it depends a lot on which form you're talking about. If it's wind or solar, the First Nation could lease land for a site, but I don't see what else they would do. If it's run of river or biomass, the local people could be more deeply involved in building and maintaining the facilities.

Comment From Alex Williams: To what degree do you think the knowledge of history is important in moving forward? It seems the lack of knowledge of non-native people in this country about the real-life mechanisms of colonization (including the damaging history of much of the residential school experience, but beyond it as well) represents a huge hole in our teaching of history. Knowledge of this history - which has for so long been the burden of Aboriginal peoples themselves, must be shared to the non-native population through education. We cannot not know our history if we are to propose any future direction. The history of disingenuous negotiation of treaty (or lack thereof), the Indian Act and its numerous incarnations, the pass system (in which for at least 56 years First Nations peoples in the prairie provinces, people couldn't leave reserve without a pass), the permit system (control of First Nations agriculture and forestry), legal controls such as from 1927-1951 they couldn't hire a lawyer, to name some of the more egregious examples, need to be known and understood before we can call this history all of ours, and move forward together to see the structural and emotional changes that need to happen.

Tom Flanagan: Alex, I agree totally with you about the importance of studying aboriginal history, though students of the subject will inevitably come to differing conclusions, and that's beneficial in an open democracy. But whatever the history is, we have to move forward as best we can. As President Kennedy said, "We will be just in our time."

Frances Abele: Thanks for this comment, Alex. I think the history of relations between Indigenous peoples and the newer-comers is fundamental to understanding where we are today. That said, it is a history that has to be taught without a huge dollop of collective guilt --responsibility to improve matters is another matter. I have noticed how discussions improve when facts are shared. While Tom is right that "interpretations" may vary, there is a good deal of our shared history that is well-documented and can be known by all.

Natalie Stechyson: We've had a few questions on this topic, and there's been a lot in the news lately about education and First Nations. What can be done to improve the academic performance of First Nation children who attend school on reserve?

Frances Abele: This is another one of those questions that is hard to answer generally. There are important initiatives in some places that show the value of parental engagement in the school (Alkali Lake in BC is one example). Improved access to post-secondary support is another, particularly support that takes into account that many new students will be older and have families. Another aspect of this is the part that universities and colleges play in reaching out to ABoriginal students.

Tom Flanagan: Many reformers are suggesting that most reserve schools are too small and isolated, and that it would be better to create First Nations school boards for larger areas. Something like that is being tried in BC, though implementation has been slow. I hope this will help, though I don't know if it deals with the underlying cultural issue. Many, many reserve teachers report a lack of support from families and communities. No structural changes will succeed if families don't support the effort.

Tom Flanagan: Fran makes an important point about the danger of generalizing. Many, many First Nations parents do care deeply about education. But under current circumstances they often send their children to school off reserve.

Comment From Guest: How can we balance economic development of First Nations people with cultural preservation?

Frances Abele: This is a matter that all First Nations communities are addressing, and to my knowledge, it has not been a huge problem. Their goal is usually cultural continuity, not preservation, and healthy societies now. Much like the rest of the country! Do you have something specific in mind?

Tom Flanagan: Guest, your question about economic development and cultural preservation is a very fundamental one. Personally, I think that First Nations that succeed in developing the economic potential of their lands will have more money to spend on things like language preservation.

Comment From Guest: Nothing specific. Thank you for your answers.

Tom Flanagan: Good point, Fran, about continuity rather than preservation. First Nations are not museum pieces. Their culture is what they do. The earth belongs to the living, as Jefferson said.

Frances Abele: Thanks, Guest. There might be a difference between how Tom and I see this matter. Cultural continuity to me means that people have the opportunity to build their future on the foundations oftheir original culture.

Comment From Shawn: What do you see as an advantage and disadvantage to keep the Indian Act for the First Nations of Canada?

Frances Abele: I don't see any advantages to the Indian Act. To me, the issue is how to move away from it in away that maximizes First Nations' discretion and nation-building.

Tom Flanagan: Shawn, we absolutely have to have something like an Indian Act. The constitution makes First Nations islands of federal jurisdiction within the provinces. There have to be ground rules. If we repeal the Indian Act, we have to immediately pass a replacement. There are many ways to improve the Indian Act, but I think it's a fantasy to try to simply abolish it.

Frances Abele: Tom, what do you mean by "islands of federal jurisdiction"? The RCAP envisioned a process of mutual recognition, entrenched, that would replace the Act.

Tom Flanagan: Agreeing to a degree with Fran, I think we can amend and supplement the Indian Act so as to increase First Nations' self-determination. But we would still need legal prescription of federal responsibilities. By "islands of federal jurisdiction," I was referring s. 91(24) of the Constitution Act, 1867, which gives Parliament jurisdiction over "Indians, and the lands reserved for the Indians."

Comment From Guest 2: further to the question re: Aboriginal history, how can political will be created to be pro-active in addressing fundamental issues of racism and assimilation in Canada?

Frances Abele: I see. But for an example of how it could be done differently, you can look at the so-called "modern treaties" as an example. These become the fundamental legal document entrenching the relationship between the Indigenous signatories and the Crown. No Indian Act or replacement.

Frances Abele: Hello Guest 2. Sorry my reply just crossed your comment. I think open conversation, discussion in public, and lots of interpersonal contact is a big part of the answer.

Tom Flanagan: In response to Guest 2, I think racism hardly exists in contemporary Canada. I see the issue as allowing and perhaps helping First Nations to get beyond the dependency created by past policies.

Comment From Ted Winters: I do not believe there should be any treaties or Federal agreements. How are treaties or hand holding helpful to First Nations people?

Frances Abele: Ted, can you explain why you think negotiating a treaty is hand-holding?

Tom Flanagan: Ted, if we could start over, I might agree with you. But we've been negotiating treaties for 200 hundred years, and we entrenched them in the constitution in 1982. We have to make the best of the path our own governments have chosen.

Comment From Alex Williams: Tom can you clarify how would you start over?

Tom Flanagan: Alex, I don't think we can start over. My comment was meant to be counterfactual.

Frances Abele: Treaties establish an agreement between the original sovereign powers in North America and the Crown of the newcomers. They create a framework for peaceful co-existence --just as the Constitution Act 1982 does. I prefer to live in a country that respects treaties (and contracts, for that matter).

Comment From Brett: I used to live very near the border of a first nations community in North Western Ontario and the reserve compared to the adjacent city was very impoverished. From watching the news releases about spendings and governance of this reserve it seems from point of view (outside looking in) that it is bad governing in this reserve that is causing this to happen. Do you think there is a better way to give funds to reserves to help them help themselves? Should we put a foot in and help the management of this funds they get to help rid this? Or is this a live and let live situation?

Tom Flanagan: Brett, I think the federal government can do a few things that would be beneficial. One would be an openness requirement for the FN government to publish its accounts, including remuneration of leaders. Another would be allowing the FN to own its land, and to make its own decisions about development. If the band is near a city, there must be some revenue potential there

Frances Abele: Thanks for this comment, Brett. The Indian Act is the root of many problems in reserve governance, for three reasons at least. (1) it concentrates economic and political power in the hands of a few leaders (2) lines of responsibility tend to run out --to the DIAND and the Minister of Indian Affairs, by law and in practice, and (3) for many years, by law again, all Bands had to have elections every two years. These provisions have created a horrible and undemocratic base on many reserves, from which people are trying to work their way out. There are now ways to opt our of the worse of these arrangements, and there is also the grassroots process that I mentioned earlier. This will happen one First Nation community at a time, but there is considerable sharing of experience now too.

Tom Flanagan: Yes, current opt-outs are already significant (e.g., First Nations Land Management Act), and I believe we can make them even better.

Frances Abele: I should add that in fact, the federal department of Indian Affairs audits First Nations governments and is empowered to "step in" when this is indicated.

Comment From Peter: The focus on treaties does little to enhance First Nations economic development activity. Allowing First Nations the freedom to negotiate with governments either at the Provincial or Municipal level to pursue business opportunities may be a better approach. Federal government does little to help the First Nations in this regard.

Tom Flanagan: I agree with you, Peter. That's why I think in the long run it will be better for FNs to own their lands and negotiate their own economic deals with their neighbours.

Frances Abele: Peter, it is open to First Nations, or their development corporations, to negoatiate with any parties they wish to, now. This occurs within the framework of the treaty relationship.

Comment From Peter: Successful governance means having a strong administration at the band level. Politicians need to set direction and allow their staff to administer programs and policies. Too often politicians try to be administrators to the detriment of their First Nation.

Frances Abele: I agree! And the separation of economic and political institutions is important as well.

Tom Flanagan: Very true, Peter. The Harvard Project in the United States has had a lot of useful things to say about how to depoliticize band governance. I think Fran and I are on the same wave length here.

Natalie Stechyson: We're about to run out of time. Dr. Flanagan, Dr. Abele - any final thoughts?

Frances Abele: I would like to thank the people who took the time to write in. It was an excellent conversation.

Tom Flanagan: I'm actually quite optimistic. I think a lot of First Nations are making good progress. But it's a long process.

Natalie Stechyson: Thank you for joining us today on That's all the time we have. Thank you to our guests, Dr. Tom Flanagan and Dr. Frances Abele. And thanks to everyone for contributing their comments and questions. Please join us tomorrow at noon EST for the next discussion in our series: electoral reform.