Drummers outside Prime Minister’ Stephen Harper’s office at Langevin Block across from Parliament Hill on Jan. 11 before the PM met with some First Nations’ chiefs. Photo by Deborah Gyapong

Fresh vision needed in First Nations’ relations

  • January 20, 2013

OTTAWA - With the First Nations’ Idle No More protests showing no sign of running out of steam, some observers urge a fresh vision for the relationship between Canada and its aboriginal peoples.

“There has to be a conversation about what is the Canada we’re aiming for and what place will aboriginal peoples have in that Canada,” said Cecil Chabot, who has advised churches, First Nations and governments on aboriginal issues.

That conversation has to include whether the future vision is just or not, he said.

This vision needs to include indigenous peoples as part of Canada, to participate not only as individuals but also retaining their prior relationships as peoples of the land, he said.

University of Saskatchewan professor Kenneth Coates said Assembly of First Nations Grand Chief Shawn Atleo and many other native leaders are now saying in a sense that “we can’t fix what happened in the past; let’s focus on the future, to find better relationships that work in a far better way.”

“There is an opening to rethink our relationship with aboriginal peoples in a collaborative way, to revisit the whole enterprise,” Coates said.

Coates calls Idle No More a needed “wake up call” for Canada. While critics have painted it as “hard left” and even neo-Marxist, Coates says the movement is diverse, with many differing points of view.

Idle No More has enabled a conversation to begin between aboriginal communities and ordinary Canadians, Coates noted. There are more than 600 First Nations and there is not going to be one model and one policy that will work for all of them.

“What the government has done is take a tool box approach to aboriginal affairs,” he said. This involves passing legislation that makes it possible for each community to decide for itself whether to use those tools.

“The goal is not for Ottawa to tell aboriginal peoples what to do with their land,” he said, calling that an outdated model. “The goal is to give capacity as communities if that’s how they want to proceed.”
For Chabot, polarization is not conducive to finding answers to questions that have to do with an equitable sharing of Canada’s land. One extreme position is that aboriginal people are victims, and all the blame goes to governments, negligence and colonialization. The opposite side says “just get on with it. There’s nothing valuable about native culture. Get a job,” Chabot said.

“There are two opposing stories, each with a kernel of truth,” Chabot said.

What’s clear is that native peoples are “highly disadvantaged” in many contexts, experiencing Third World conditions, enormous structural problems of government and deep social problems within communities, Chabot said.

On the aboriginal side, some voices in the Idle No More movement are focused on a “constitutional, activist approach, with a preoccupation with sovereignty rights,” said Coates. Theoretical and idealistic notions can only take aboriginal peoples so far, he said.

“You need collaboration and mutual interests.”

The sovereignty and constitutional model is “quite unachievable,” Coates said. Based on idealism, the “return to aboriginal sovereignty as a foundation for the future is asking the government to write itself out of its own history. That’s not going to happen.”

Some of this idealism was reflected in demands the Governor General and the Prime Minister attend the same meeting with the native leaders Jan. 11, “nation to nation.” Some leaders chose to meet with the Prime Minister, and a larger group, including Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence who has been on a solid food fast, met with Governor General David Johnston at Rideau Hall that evening.

As a result of the meeting, Indian Affairs Minister John Duncan announced Harper had agreed to: high level dialogue on “the treaty relationship and comprehensive claims”; enhanced oversight of aboriginal matters from the Prime Minister’s Office and the Privy Council Office; and a commitment to debrief cabinet on the discussions and meet again with Atleo “to review the next steps.”

Coates said it is incumbent on Canada’s political parties not to take a partisan approach to finding solutions. He noted NDP leader Thomas Mulcair took a while before commenting and “took a responsible approach” by giving support to the steps the government has taken.


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