Abo­rig­i­nal self-gov­ern­ment

Journal Pioneer - - EDITORIAL - BY PETER MCKENNA Peter McKenna is pro­fes­sor and chair­man of po­lit­i­cal science at the Univer­sity of Prince Ed­ward Island.

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.

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