Mary Simon . Getting it right
Let's see our freshly elected members finally take action on aboriginal issues that will make a difference for native peoples
Mary Simon, Citizen SpecialPublished: Tuesday, October 14, 2008
This past June, all Canadians had reason to take heart from the apology made on the floor of the House of Commons to the aboriginal victims of residential and day schools. For aboriginal peoples, especially those who had attended those schools, it was an especially poignant moment.
Last summer's apology teaches that truth is stronger than make-believe, and that history matters. But for the lessons of history to have enduring value, awareness of past injustice must inspire determination to correct current injustice. Awareness without action is hope defeated and opportunity squandered.
The next Parliament, whatever the party standings after today's election, will have a unique window of opportunity, early in its life, to build on the residual goodwill of last summer's apology.
Assembly of First Nations national chief Phil Fontaine speaks in the Senate chamber on Parliament Hill. Last summer's apology by the government for the suffering caused by Indian Residential Schools teaches that truth is stronger than make-believe, and that history matters.
Chris Wattie, Reuters
Seizing that opportunity will require two things. An appropriate demonstration of leadership and imagination by whoever become the next prime minister and cabinet. And a willingness on the part of all parties to acknowledge that the urgency of making measurable progress on aboriginal issues should transcend the day-to-day preoccupations of partisan politics.
I hope to see leadership and imagination in the following areas:
Accepting Core Federal Responsibility
Unlike difficult topics such as climate change and securities regulation, the federal government has clear legislative authority in relation to aboriginal peoples drawn directly from the Constitution Act, 1867.
The courts have been clear that treaties with aboriginal peoples must be signed by the federal Crown. Whatever their jurisdictional jealousies and appetites in other areas, provincial and territorial premiers have consistently called for leadership on aboriginal issues at the federal level. Federal politicians and officials should accept this premise and move once and for all to eradicate the jurisdictional barriers that inhibit seamless delivery of quality programming to aboriginal peoples wherever they reside in Canada.
There can be no doubt that aboriginal peoples will not disappear quietly into a jurisdictionally and culturally homogenized future.
Aboriginal Issues Count
The population of aboriginal people in Canada continues to grow, even as the fertility rate for other Canadians has slipped below replacement levels. The loss in national economic productiveness that follows from aboriginal peoples being poorly positioned to compete for skilled jobs and paycheques continues to mount.
The wildly disproportionate numbers of aboriginal peoples in the justice and correctional system will generate enormous long-term infrastructure and operational costs if current trends are not reversed. Ghettoization of aboriginal peoples in big-city inner neighbourhoods puts aboriginal economic and social marginalization in the face of more and more non-aboriginal Canadians.
Realities and pressures like these can't be wished away. Passivity will amplify their number, scope, and impact; the status quo simply won't hold.
The World Is Watching
Aboriginal rights, and the international instruments that have been overwhelmingly adopted by the countries of the world to define, protect and advance them, are now an accepted part of the global human rights regime. More importantly, in a world where modern communications technology makes each of us an Internet neighbour to everyone else, we must expect the world to be increasingly interested in the circumstances and pronouncements of aboriginal peoples everywhere.
Ongoing interest will be amplified when other events throw a spotlight; the 2010 Vancouver Olympics will be an occasion of particular scrutiny for Canada. There will be no escaping being measured; the only sensible strategy is to try to measure up.
Eliminating the Zero-Sum Fixation
Past federal aboriginal policy-making has on occasion suffered from a concern that any financial gain for aboriginal people must come at the expense of federal coffers or non-aboriginal Canadians generally. The idea of adding value, the cornerstone of negotiating theory in almost every other public sector and private sector interaction, is missing in action. This mentality won't get us where we want and need to go.
Natural Resource Mega-Projects
Much was said during the last Parliament about Canada's prospects in relation to mining and oil and gas mega-projects, particularly in Arctic and sub-Arctic parts of the country. Much of this talk was fuelled by high energy and commodity demand and prices, and the likelihood that global warming will make the extraction and transportation of resources from northern Canada more economically viable.
Many aboriginal peoples welcome the prospects for greater economic self reliance bound up in these project proposals. It is clear, however, that the various provisions of the modern treaties that blanket the northern third of Canada, combined with common law obligations of consultation owed by the Crown, will make it very difficult for any of these projects to proceed, within economic timeframes and within an acceptable amount of project risk, without aboriginal peoples being onside.
Genuine, mutually beneficial partnership roles for aboriginal peoples are no longer optional for such projects.
Picking Some Low-Hanging Fruit
It is important that a new Parliament, and a government answering to that new Parliament, signal a willingness to break with old, discredited approaches to aboriginal peoples and polices, and to seek fresh and constructive alternatives. Saying the right things, and committing to the right things, in the first speech from the throne and the first budget speech, will be crucial tests. These two speeches will indicate whether the post-election government is prepared to stake out a new way of conducting relations with Canada's aboriginal peoples.
Even in advance of those pivotal speeches, however, a reformist government could signal bold new directions by helping itself to some low hanging fruit. Three eminently suitable examples would be:
(1) commitment to an early First Ministers and National Aboriginal Organizations Meeting to create a new path forward for aboriginal peoples, that is substantially more ambitious than the previous Kelowna Accord, and speaking to economic as well as social policy objectives;
(2) endorsement of the 2007 UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples; and,
(3) acceptance of the bi-partisan report of the Senate Committee on Aboriginal Peoples, during the closing days of the previous Parliament, on the amendment of federal land claims agreement implementation policy.
During the election I sent an open letter and 12 questions to all party leaders reflecting these and other issues. Our purpose was to raise awareness of these issues, vital to Inuit in the Arctic, during this election campaign. I am pleased that all party leaders responded to all questions, providing Inuit and all Canadians an opportunity to reflect on what I consider to be an important element in considering who should form the next government.
In speaking across Canada this year I have stated that Canada will be measured in part by how the aboriginal peoples of this country are faring. Let's keep in mind we will be hosting the world in 2010, and work toward improving conditions for all aboriginal peoples, not only for that important event, but for generations to come.
Mary Simon is president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, Canada's national Inuit organization.© The Ottawa Citizen 2008