Recently, the Trudeau government introduced a series of initiatives to further Aboriginal self-government and selfdetermination — including the splitting of the Department of Indigenous and Northern Affairs into two separate ministries. The new Department of Crown-Indigenous Relations will be tasked with accelerating “self-government and self-determination agreements based on new policies, laws and operational practices.”
This is a very tricky policy file — replete with political landmines, twists and turns and huge impediments — but one which can’t be ignored forever.
In July, the federal Justice Department released its 10 principles that will guide the governing Liberals in securing reconciliation with Canada’s Indigenous peoples.
The very first principle is strikingly clear: “The Government of Canada recognizes that all relations with indigenous peoples need to be based on the recognition and implementation of their right to selfdetermination, including the inherent right of self-government.”
To begin, the concept of Aboriginal self-government is not a new idea in Canada. One could go back to the 1966 Hawthorn-Tremblay Report, Pierre Trudeau’s 1969 White Paper and the (Keith) Penner Report of 1983 right up to the “third order of government” proposed in the ill-fated 1992 Charlottetown Accord and the 1996 Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples. Furthermore, there are already several self-government agreements with the Cree in Quebec, the Nishga’a in British Columbia and the Inuit of Nunavut.
There is also a groundbreaking self-government arrangement — the Mi’kmaq Education Act — between the Mi’kmaq and the government of Nova Scotia.
All levels of government and office-holders in Canada want to know how it will impact existing power structures, constitutional and justice matters, fiduciary arrangements and economic/resource/land development issues, among other things. Another key sticking point is the precise nature of the selfgovernment model in question. It is important to note that many First Nations reserves or bands in Canada have fewer than one thousand members. So would that require the creation of, say, a regional selfgovernment model?
What does seem a nonstarter, though, is any move to impose a “cookie-cutter” or “one-sizefits-all” approach to Aboriginal self-government — which federal government departments in Ottawa have traditionally favoured.
One of the key issues, of course, is whether Aboriginal self-governments would have the requisite economic base and revenue-generation capability needed to support such a political system. In short, who is going to pay for all of this, especially given the desperate state of Aboriginal communities in Canada?
The principal objections to Aboriginal self-government have not changed much over the years. And they remain a significant “brake” on moving forward in any significant way on this thorny political file. There are federal concerns about what the overall cost will be to enable self-government to get up and running, the termination of the paternalistic Indian Act, how all of this would affect off-reserve Aboriginal peoples (such as the Métis) and the need for financial accountability and transparency structures. There are provincial reservations about legislative/ legal paramountcy — whether provincial laws would, if they conflict, take precedence over laws passed by Aboriginal self-governments. The business community in Canada is deeply worried about who will dictate resource development on Indigenous or crown lands. Much of this resistance can be traced to fear (particularly among federal Indigenous Affairs officials) of losing control and power over Indigenous communities in Canada. Indeed, it is hard for some people to alter the mindset of Aboriginal peoples as dependent, wards of the state.
Yet we all have to recognize that the existing Indigenous governmental attitudes, systems, processes and structures are not working well. Reserves in Canada are plagued by a host of socio-economic and health problems that are not being properly addressed under the current policy regime.
So we must begin serious negotiations — building upon the successful 2005 Kelowna Accord — on advancing the self-government agenda. What is needed, more than anything else, is the necessary political will on the part of the Trudeau government to move forward.
No one is suggesting that this process will be easy, uncomplicated or free of any bumps along the way.
But we have to try. Besides, Aboriginal peoples can’t do any worse than non-Indigenous already have in their past efforts to rectify the systemic problems inflicting Canada’s Indigenous communities.