Writing in the Toronto Star, MLI Senior Fellow Ken Coates says a recent UN report that calls on the federal government to pour more resources into helping Aboriginals glosses over the real problems that are involved in the file. Coates argues that chipping away at centuries of accumulated injustice, mistrust and dysfunction will require more than government will and money.
Ken Coates, May 16, 2014
So the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, James Anaya, says that aboriginal Canadians are far too often poor, marginalized and incarcerated in distressingly high numbers. This we already knew. As Marx might have said, many rapporteurs have described the world; the point, however, is to change it. And here Anaya has let his employers, Canadians, and especially aboriginal people down.
Anaya is, of course, right the situation of too many aboriginal Canadians is simply unacceptable. He is wrong, however, that governments today do not regard aboriginal affairs as a priority. Judges, politicians and officials have been engaged in a flurry of attempts — both successful and unsuccessful – in recent decades to find the tools to change things for the better, including the constitutionalization of treaties and aboriginal rights, court decisions from Marshall to the duty to consult, a royal commission, the Kelowna Accord, territorial devolution and the recent attempt to improve First Nations education. This is not a portrait of an indifferent country.
This work takes place in an entirely understandable atmosphere of hostility and distrust on the part of aboriginal people and their leadership based on the aggressive colonial policies and administrative heavy-handedness over the past century. It is ironic, in fact, that Anaya chastises Ottawa for not doing enough when, historically, government intervention is at the root of many contemporary problems.
Aboriginal leaders and communities are desperate for change and are prepared to collaborate with the public and private sector to create improvements. Recent governments have tried everything from Paul Martin's Kelowna Accord to Stephen Harper's First Nations Education Act. Canadians at large want an end to the poverty and cultural loss that dominates aboriginal communities. Canada desperately wants solutions.
Canada's real problem is that there is no consensus on how to achieve meaningful change. The now-stalled First Nations Education Act shows both the willingness to find solutions and the fragility of such accords and reinforces the big lessons of recent decades. First Nations want more control, more money and direct recognition of Aboriginal and treaty rights.
Ottawa agrees that more has to be done, on education, health, economic development and other topics, but they want to know that the money is being well-spent, that the First Nations governments can handle the responsibilities and that national priorities are met. These are not, in the end, irreconcilable differences.
The problem with Anaya's report is that it implies that there are obvious solutions and that it is only the want of government will and money that is holding aboriginal people back. If only it were so.
There are many different ideas floating around about how to address Indigenous challenges, from more money and self-government to special programs in education and health care. Many communities have participated actively in resource and business development and are taking control of their lives – and their finances – from government. But there is substantial unevenness in the capacity of aboriginal communities to undertake these reforms and large disagreements over priorities.
There is a great deal of excellent work being done by First Nations, Métis and Inuit communities and organizations that are making a real difference. New models of resource development are producing impressive examples of collaboration with the private sector, as demonstrated by the relationship between Aboriginal groups and the Saskatchewan uranium industry and the Alberta oil sands
The sense of progress and economic dynamism is now palpable in communities as diverse as Osoyoos (B.C.), Membertou (Nova Scotia) and Carcross-Tagish (Yukon). Governments are contributing, as discussions of resource revenue sharing, education reform and treaty modernization take place with more and more communities. Compared to what is needed, the gaps are evident. Compared to where Canada and aboriginal communities were 30 years ago, the positive transformations are remarkable.
So progress, but no magic bullet. Just lots of long hard slogging as we chip away at centuries of accumulated injustice, mistrust and dysfunction. The problems have not been conquered, but real progress – led and supported by aboriginal leaders and communities – is being made across the country.
If the UN wants to contribute to improving the position of Indigenous people in Canada, a good place to start would be to take the trouble actually to understand how we got to where we are and the important progress that this represents. The answer is not, as Anaya suggests, more government action and investment alone, but supporting aboriginal communities and governments in building capacity so the progress so evident for the few can be replicated for the many.
Ken Coates is senior fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute and Canada Research Chair at the University of Saskatchewan. He is co-author of the Macdonald-Laurier Institute publications, New Beginnings: How Canada's Natural Resource Wealth Could Re-shape Relations with Aboriginal People and The Way Out: New thinking about Aboriginal engagement and energy infrastructure to the West Coast.
MLI would not exist without the support of its donors. Please consider making a small contribution today.