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Jeffrey Simpson (Brigitte Bouvier for The Globe and Mail)

Jeffrey Simpson

(Brigitte Bouvier for The Globe and Mail)

Jeffrey Simpson

Canada and its first nations: a long line of false starts, slow progress Add to ...

In 1969, the recently elected government of Pierre Trudeau published a white paper on Indian policy.

Consistent with Mr. Trudeau’s belief in individual but not collective rights, and reflective of the frustration about the lack of progress on aboriginal matters, the white paper recommended scrapping the Indian Act (which was what Indians said they wanted); delivering services through the same programs as for other Canadians; abolishing the Indian affairs special programs; and transferring Indian lands to Indian people and away from ownership by reserves.

Aboriginal leaders furiously denounced the white paper as a recipe for assimilation. They said it rejected their special standing in Canada as the original occupiers of the land. They insisted it diluted their relationship with the Crown that dated to the Royal Proclamation of 1763.

Mr. Trudeau relented, not something he often did. Ever since, without much success, Indian leaders and governments have tried to develop a functional, “nation-to-nation” relationship.

It was always going to be a struggle. Not only did generations of mistrust corrode confidence, but it proved difficult to figure out how to give effect in fact, as opposed to rhetoric, to the “self-determination” of aboriginal nations that contained 612 bands (according to Statistics Canada’s survey of 2006), on more than 2,600 reserves, many in remote areas with small land bases and populations – to say nothing of the fact that about half the Indian population had left the reserves.

Efforts to square this circle have rather predictably failed. Aboriginals, of course, place the entire blame on governments. The reality is, as one would expect, rather more complicated.

In 1992, a major effort to start serious treaty negotiations began in British Columbia, where only a small amount of territory is covered by treaties. With great fanfare, governments and the B.C. aboriginal leadership launched the B.C. Treaty Commission.

Two decades later, the results are depressingly modest. By provincial statistics, 60 Indian groups are negotiating, representing only about half the provincial total. The rest are not interested in participating. Only two groups have implemented treaties, three have completed final agreements, two more have advanced final agreements and one has an agreement in principle. (The Nisga’a Treaty preceded the post-1992 process.)

A year earlier, the federal government had created a royal commission. It took the better part of five years and went way over budget, but eventually produced five volumes. It tried to articulate a vision of a “nation-to-nation” relationship with an elaborate third order of government, an aboriginal parliament, regrouping (or aggregating) bands into larger units, new treaties, more land, a bigger share of resources.

But there was too much castle-in-the-sky thinking (which is why former Saskatchewan premier Allan Blakeney quit the commission), too much dreamy talk of how to create economic wealth for aboriginals, and an analysis that rested far too much on the separateness of aboriginals. Few concrete changes occurred.

Prime minister Brian Mulroney’s government negotiated with the provinces and the aboriginal leadership a historic document – the Charlottetown Accord – that would have greatly expanded constitutional protections for aboriginal rights. The then-head of the Assembly of First Nations, Ovide Mercredi, campaigned tirelessly for the accord. Alas for him, a majority of aboriginals voted against it.

Then, as now, many aboriginals do not believe governments negotiate in good faith, and governments struggle to understand aboriginals’ bottom lines. It is a recipe for slow progress at best.

There have been other false starts: the Kelowna Accord from the Paul Martin government that would have greatly increased federal monies for aboriginal education and housing was dropped by the Harper government. Aboriginals decry the Indian Act but efforts to change it largely go nowhere.

So yesterday, another meeting occurred, surrounded by controversy and fiery rhetoric, threats to bring the nation’s economy to a halt, a meeting cobbled together quickly, with a shifting agenda and the likelihood of sustained progress almost nil, given past failures.

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