CPAC round-table: First Nations in Canada: Is there a way forward? -

CPAC round-table: First Nations in Canada: Is there a way forward?

Manny Jules, Shawn Atleo, Charlene Fafreniere, and Paul Wells & John Geddes of Maclean’s discuss the future

Looking for a way forward

Photograph by Marianne Helm

Last week in Winnipeg, Maclean’s and CPAC hosted a round-table conversation entitled, “First Nations in Canada: Is there a way forward?” In this wide-ranging discussion about one of the country’s most pressing national issues, Maclean’s columnist Paul Wells and Ottawa bureau chief John Geddes were joined by Shawn Atleo, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, Manny Jules, chairman of the First Nations Tax Commission, and Charlene Lafreniere, a city councillor in Thompson, Man., and co-chair of the Urban Aboriginal Strategy initiative. The discussion was moderated by CPAC’s Peter Van Dusen. The following is an edited excerpt.

Paul Wells: It’s been a complex year on the Aboriginal affairs file. It began just before the New Year with the revelations of the desperate situation in Attawapiskat. Along came the surprising news of the Crown-First Nations gathering and of Stephen Harper allowing himself for the first time I can remember to be outnumbered by people who might not agree with him on everything in front of TV cameras.

It seemed like a bold step, and yet the follow-up has been tentative. In the budget there was new money for Aboriginal education, but less money on that file than the Aboriginal Affairs Department has been asked to cut in general over the next three years. There’s been a cap on transfers to First Nations communities since 1996, originally as a deficit-fighting measure, of two per cent per year, in communities that are growing way faster than two per cent per year. That cap stays in place. The First Nations Statistical Institute, which tells us specifically where the problems are, is going to be shut down. The National Aboriginal Health Organization is being shut down. And it’s not clear to me that Stephen Harper has a vision or a plan. I’m making a pretty good living writing about Harper as an incrementalist. You can be incremental, but when the house is on fire it doesn’t really help. So tonight, at least, I’m a little pessimistic.

John Geddes: I find myself in the unfamiliar position of thinking that I’m going to defend the government here. It’s true the recent budget did have cuts for Aboriginal Affairs in it, but compared to other departments in the federal government, not deep cuts. And to the degree that there’s new money on the table, or reallocation of funds, it seems to be going in promising directions, keeping up the building of new water infrastructure in reserves, some new money for education. More important than the cash that’s on the table, I would guess—if I was defending the kind of incremental approach Prime Minister Harper is behind—are some of these steps: the promise of a First Nations education act, which I think could be an important thing, and an interesting and challenging promise to have some kind of private property rights on reserves coming into effect in the near future, too. So maybe these are incremental steps, but probably a little bolder than we saw in the first few years of the Harper government, and in the face of a government-wide austerity push, not as much austerity as I think many First Nations leaders would have feared going into this budget season. So I see some cause for optimism.

Peter Van Dusen: What is the state of the relationship between First Nations and the Crown, and how do we move that relationship forward?

Manny Jules: Just to combine the discussion on the relationship with the First Nations-Crown meeting, in my view only half of the Crown was there. In order for us to move our agenda forward we definitely need to involve the provincial governments, because a lot of the areas of jurisdiction that we’re pursuing are in the provincial purview. And the other important thing the Prime Minister said on Jan. 24 is that he wasn’t prepared to just simply blow up the Indian Act, that it had long roots and a long history in this country. That goes back to the 1968 consultation process when Trudeau wanted to blow up the Indian Act. And the fact of the matter is that any changes that are going to happen in this country, the leadership has to come from First Nations people. If that doesn’t happen then we’re going to end up with the status quo. But the solutions are very simple, in my view: if you don’t have an economic focus, if you’re not thinking about how we’re going to be part of the national economy and therefore the global economy, we’re just going to be repeating the kind of programs and the handouts that have been given to our people. Our people deserve more than that.

Van Dusen: What is the reluctance? Is everybody in agreement that the Indian Act needs to be blown up, or is there a reluctance to do that?

Shawn Atleo: No one in this room wrote that Indian Act, none of us threw open the doors to those residential schools, but there was a collective recognition that we needed to close them down, and that there does need to be a path of reconciliation. So if you were to just take one example, education, right now K-12 education is within the Indian Act. It makes no sense for education to be within the Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs, it must be up to First Nations to design and control that. First Nations have been leading that effort since the 1970s. After all, if the residential schools under the guise of education sought to remove children from their homes, families, treaties, teachings, language and heritage, should education not be one of the major tools, not only to put those pieces back to support First Nations youngsters, but to facilitate reconciliation between First Nations and the rest of Canadian society?

Van Dusen: So are there ways to work around some of those provisions, open up the Indian Act, in effect? Do you need to get rid of it completely, or do we start now by finding a way to work within it?

Atleo: We should be clear, there are some First Nations who have negotiated their way out from the Indian Act. Some are in negotiations as well. But broadly, First Nations seek the recognition of their treaty right to education in this one instance. Under the status quo, as the outgoing auditor general said, things were getting worse. Her conclusion was that governments must work with First Nations in full partnership.

Charlene Lafreniere: I completely agree with what’s being said regarding education. From my perspective as a city councillor in an urban environment, people say the answers are in the communities. In Thompson we’ve recognized this through the Aboriginal accord. It acknowledged the traditional territory, it acknowledged the contributions of Aboriginal people building the city. One place where we’re seeing success right now is we’ve had an announcement of a decommissioning of a smelter and refinery of the mine, which is not our only economic base but is definitely a strong pillar in our community. Because of the Thompson Aboriginal accord, who are the people at the table to develop this economic action plan for our region? It’s Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak, the northern chiefs, the Keewatin tribal council, the Manitoba Metis Federation, the Nisichawayasihk Cree Nation, the Northern Association of Community Councils, our chamber of commerce and our economic development corporation. That’s who’s sitting at the table, and that’s who’s coming up with solutions for our community.

Jules: I think one of the critical components—and I referred to it earlier on—is when you have a population that’s completely dependent on the federal government for federal transfers—95 per cent of its budget— that has to change. We have to move toward a revenue stream that is independent of government so that we can determine our own priorities. If we continue on the path we are—which is, in my view, just simply a dependence approach—we’ll never break that cycle.

Wells: What would that autonomous revenue source be?

Jules: If you have your own economy it could be resource revenue sharing. It could be commercial development. It could be individual home ownership so that you don’t have to go to the minister of Indian Affairs to co-sign a loan for you.

Van Dusen: Not everybody agrees with the private property approach. I think you have some concerns, Shawn Atleo, about private property ownership on reserves?

Atleo: I respect Manny and his work advocating as an individual for this notion. The chiefs did consider and did reject the idea for fear of undermining the sacred treaty relationship about holding property in common for future generations. They discussed amongst themselves the notion that communities like Dakota Whitecap, or Membertou in the east, or Westbank in the west have successful common-held property type regimes in place and have created booming economies. And so the shared goal or vision is absolutely to create economies, that’s what First Nations aspire to, that’s the work that pressed toward the First Nation-Crown gathering. What I’m really thankful for, as I sit here with you, is that there are increasing numbers of business and economic leaders.

Geddes: Manny, how do you see the balancing of your idea of having some private property rights and maintaining some kind of sense of collective identity and community?

Jules: In exactly the same way Canada does it. Canada doesn’t say that individuals cannot have individual private property rights. As a matter of fact, Canada encourages that. In my view, individual rights are the epitome of collective rights. You can’t have one without the other. The collective strength that Canada has is because of individual Canadians, and the same holds true with myself as a Shuswap, because without me and others there is no Shuswap nation. I want the federal government to transfer its title, which it holds under the Indian Act, to the collective interest known as the Kamloops so that it would be held in perpetuity by my people forever. Once that title is transferred, it frees the imagination of individual community members within Kamloops to be able to mortgage a home on their own, because right now you have to go to the band council, and that band council has to go to the minister of Indian Affairs. If you believe the AFN or the Department of Indian Affairs, it’s either going to take 200 years or 850 years to catch up to the backlog of housing. In other words, it’ll never happen.

Atleo: I think we have to be dissuaded from this notion that there is a magic bullet that’s going to take us to the promised land. If this was easy work it would have happened a long time ago, we wouldn’t be having this conversation tonight. It is going to take hard work. There’s naturally deep fear and mistrust about whether a concept like this, another sort of externally brought concept, is going to be good for First Nations. What needs to happen now is not to overstep the treaty and Aboriginal titling rights of First Nations, not to look within the confines of the current systems, but to support innovation, to support First Nations to be fully freed as self-determining peoples to design solutions that are going to work for them. We’ve had a litany and a legacy of ideas that have come in that are supposedly good for First Nations. It’s about time First Nations decided for themselves.

Jules: I’m glad the national chief said that he recognizes the right of individual communities to choose their own path, because I think that’s critically important as we begin to move forward.


CPAC round-table: First Nations in Canada: Is there a way forward?

  1. many people have been looking at this situation in many different precepts. some make sense and some needs more clarifications. my stand point has always been like this: first nations to create, develop, implement, and train their citizens to pursue self government, governments and industry is in their best interest to support and fund these developments. if that’s not working on the big white elephant in the room, i don’t know what is. call me i’ll help

  2. I understand that dialogue is the first step to progress, but why such a broad question? I find this is often the problem, conversations that are not focussed enough for any real solutions to be put forth. There should be a conversation on each topic independent of each other prior to a general conversation and each participant should have full knowledge of the history leading up to current challenges and strengths, so that they can put forth realistic and viable sollutions. Simply saying, “the government should this”, or “the First Nations People should do this”, is usually too simplified.
    Also, let me clarify what I mean by the history leading up to present times; history should be all inclusive from both sides, First Nation, and Canadian. What happened, when it happened, how it happened, and how it has effected the current situation. An example would be for the topic Education, most people have heard of the residential schools, but what about the Transfer Act, when Canada transferred education to the province? How has this affected the current situation? How about when Canada transferred control of their education to the First Nations? When and why did this happen? What are the legal responsibilities of all parties involved? What have the courts said in past decisions, and what does it all mean? Also, what about the money??? How much is there and where does it go?
    Let me give another example, but this time for the topic housing. In 2009, Canada announced that they were giving 400 million dollars to First Nation Housing, but that was all they announced. Canada didn’t explain to the public that they were going to keep $125 million for themselves and give another $125 million to a Crown corporation and then give the leftovers to be split by over 600 communities. I would want to know why a Crown Corporation like CMHC got anything, and for what? Anyway, I digress, I apologise.
    The point is, when everyone involved in the conversation is no longer ignorant, only then can any real suggestions be put forth. The more information one has the more difficult it becomes to make irresponsible comments like “the Native this” or “the government that”. I implore everyone in the country to become educated in a topic prior to making snap judgments or off handed comments against either side.

  3. i too, also agree that this question is loaded cannot be properly addressed in a single response. There are many sides to this problem, be they social, educational, economic and lastly and more importantly, political. Each component has their own sets of issues. Some of the immediate remedies that can help each first nation out, is self reliance which is really not self governance. While self government is an ideal goal, it is also lofty and fraught with many misunderstandings and time consuming factors. One way to achieve self sufficiency in a real sense is empowering the first nations to generate their own water and power. Complete a couple of pilot projects. Everyone says the technology is out there, yet no one is stepping forward to assist in this new knowledge. There are funding sources out there, both provincially and federally that are available to access in these projects, why not start? We can see everyday that the sun and wind can be harnessed to power our first nations, thereby aleviating some of the financial burdens placed on individual first nations houses. The next logical step would be ensuring the water supplies were safe and consistant to the first nation. Take care of these, and then look at housing….what can we do to fix this problem? There are real solutions out there. Incorporate a local milling operation if the materials are too expensive to ship in…some of the simpler ideas I have on these very real issues facing first nations. Better the economy and you better the social fabric. Better the social fabric and you better the political environment. Once you have the politics settled, you should be on the way to prosperity and self-government is just around the corner, achieved with a little more hard work.