Macdonald-Laurier InstituteCanada’s obligations to First Nations cannot be achieved by controlling them through annual budgetary allocations, writes John Paul. Create the preconditions for autonomy.

By John Paul, May 14, 2018

For generations, the Mi’kmaq and Maliseet in the Atlantic region have been among the most marginalized, ignored, and government-dominated Indigenous peoples in Canada.

After signing “peace and friendship” treaties with the British in the 18th century — the accords did not cover land and resources — they were displaced by incoming British settlers and experienced the occupation of the most economically valuable parts of their traditional territories. The British authorities paid little attention to their impoverishment and seemed to buy into the idea that the First Nations would, as victims of the inevitability of “progress,” disappear within a generation or two.

The Mi’kmaq and Maliseet did not disappear, although they suffered grievously from their economic displacement, government neglect of their interests and the pervasive racism of 19th and 20th century British North America and Canada.

The consequences are clearly evident: extreme poverty, physical isolation from the major population and economic centres, accelerated language and culture loss, and a growing government presence that smothered Mi’kmaq and Maliseet community control.

Conditions improved, marginally, through the 20th century, but Indigenous attempts to secure meaningful control over their lives, a proper treaty, and an appropriate place in the regional economy have proven to be elusive.

The country is currently struggling to find the proper path forward on Aboriginal policy. It is certainly an issue that has the attention of the prime minister and his cabinet, which includes three extremely capable and committed ministers — Jody Wilson-Raybould, Jane Philpott and Carolyn Bennett — with major responsibilities in the field. First Nations, including the Mi’kmaq and Maliseet, work within their communities and regional organizations to outline a preferred strategy, although they do so with limited planning capacity and uncertain resources for their governments. But everyone agrees that the path forward must break away from traditional approaches.

The country is currently struggling to find the proper path forward on Aboriginal policy.

Reduced to the basics, there are two fundamental options for the government and Canada and First Nations in Atlantic Canada.

The status quo approach focuses on expanded government intervention and enhanced funding. Proponents of this approach urge government, with most of its own civil servants pushing this line, to add new programs, improve funding, and focus on community-level supports in everything from child welfare and violence prevention to housing and cultural revitalization. This approach requires maintenance of a large federal bureaucracy and a great deal of negotiation between Ottawa and the First Nations. The only major problem with this approach is that it does not work particularly well.

The autonomy movement focuses on locally controlled business development that capitalizes on Aboriginal and treaty rights and converts court-provided guarantees of Indigenous authority into economic growth. In this formulation, it is business more than government and federal administration that truly supports Indigenous independence and cultural strength. This approach shifts power and responsibility from Ottawa to Indigenous communities and their governments. We have substantial evidence that this strategy is producing real and positive change.

The Mi’kmaq and Maliseet provide an excellent illustration of the value of the second approach. In Atlantic Canada, the 1999 Supreme Court of Canada decision on the Marshall case produced a major shift toward real change and growth of First Nations in the fishery. It reinstated a right that, by law, should always have been there. It reinserted the First Nations into a major economic sector from which they had been effectively barred. The decision ignited business growth and employment in regional First Nations communities, spreading quickly beyond the fishery. It has sparked the rapid spread of entrepreneurship and local opportunity.

Indigenous industry in the region is now a critical and growing part of the Atlantic economy, representing over $1.14 billion a year. Emboldened by the assurance of economic power and independence, the Mi’kmaq and Maliseet have been looking to expand business activity, assert control over education (a success story that most Canadians do not appreciate), and make improvements in collaborative Indigenous governance. Economic growth has allowed Indigenous people to own and control the solutions, which creates better lives and prosperity.

Indigenous industry in the region is now a critical and growing part of the Atlantic economy, representing over $1.14 billion a year.

The federal and provincial governments still have crucial and largely unfulfilled roles to play. Instead of trying to micromanage First Nations affairs through complex programs and ever-changing funding priorities, they should focus on meeting a simple challenge: providing the Mi’kmaq and Maliseet with basic services (health and education) and infrastructure that are comparable to regional and national norms. There is a great deal to be done here, and it is urgent work. Governments should focus on the basics — funding for locally controlled education and health, water, roads, Internet connectivity and the like.

Beyond that, governments should get out of the way. They should ensure that Indigenous peoples have the economic space that was stripped from them over 200 years ago and that was denied by two centuries of discrimination.

But as the Atlantic fishery has shown, the Mi’kmaq and Maliseet can and will capitalize on real opportunities. This has worked in other areas, too, like Indigenous control of casinos out west. And First Nations will use their money and authority as they see fit, to improve their communities, create jobs and build the kind of future that their people want and deserve.

The government of Canada’s obligations to First Nations cannot be achieved by babysitting First Nations or controlling them through annual budgetary allocations. Create the preconditions for autonomy. Conclude a fair and appropriate modern treaty. Ensure that the Mi’kmaq and Maliseet have economic space and opportunity. Improve services and infrastructure in First Nations communities. The shift toward autonomy will not be seamless, but it is much more promising than continued reliance of federal government dominance and dependency.

Ironically, then, the bravest, most effective thing that the activist Trudeau government can do, fighting its instincts and the preferences of the Ottawa civil service, is to trust First Nations and their governments and to count on Indigenous business development to build prosperity and real autonomy.

John Paul is executive director, Atlantic Policy Congress of First Nations Chiefs Secretariat.