Searching for a balance on Aboriginal affairs: join our conversation -

Searching for a balance on Aboriginal affairs: join our conversation


Earlier today, Paul Wells alerted you to Wednesday evening’s CPAC “In Conversation With Maclean’s” panel discussion, to be held at the beautiful Winnipeg Art Gallery, on the fraught subject, “First Nations in Canada: Is There a Way Forward?” I say “fraught” because how any federal government handles the Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development file ends up being controversial and sensitive.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper started off on a combative note, after winning power in 2006, by effectively scrapping the so-called Kelowna Accord, a complex deal worked out by then-prime minister Paul Martin’s Liberal government and the leaders of five national Aboriginal organizations that would have seen $5 billion spent over a decade on social and economic initiatives.  But in 2008, Harper seemed to set a more conciliatory tone by issuing an historic apology to former students in Indian residential schools for that disgraceful period in Canadian history.

But since those early, landmark steps—one to erase a Liberal initiative, the other the salve an old wound—the strategy of the Conservative government has been more incremental, an approach defended by Harper at his summit earlier this year with First Nations leaders. A key question, I would suggest, is whether that’s a good or a bad thing. The case for good: Aboriginal issues are so varied across the country that there’s no single, dramatic step that can hope to accomplish anything real. The case for bad: the social and economic problems on remote reserves in particular, and even more generally among Aboriginal Canadians, is so grim that bolder measures are demanded.

Where the Conservative government’s policies rest on the spectrum from tentative to decisive is a matter I hope the experts on our panel (the formidable trio of National Chief Shawn Atleo of the Assembly of First Nations, Manny Jules, chief commissioner of the Frist Nations Tax Commission, and Charlene Lafreniere, a city councillor from Thompson, Man.) will be able to probe. The recent federal budget’s Aboriginal Affairs envelope earmarks, for example, $275 million over three years for literacy programming, $175 million over three years to build and renovate schools on reserves. To upgrade water systems on reserves—a huge, recurring problem—the Tories have promised to spend $330.8 million over two years. But these are just numbers. We need insights into how they match up with real, pressing needs.

And then there are the initiatives that don’t come with big dollar figures attached, but might add up to practical improvements, like the First Nations Land Management Regime (a bid to give local First Nations leaders more direct control over their land) and the First Nations Elections Act (which offers reserve communities the chance to modernize their governance by, among other things, electing band councils to four-year terms, rather than the current two-year norm, which doesn’t give councils much time to get things done before they face voters again).

There’s plenty to talk about, probably too much. The key will be finding a balance between an appropriate level of idealism and a useful dose of pragmatism, which, come to think of it, is the unchanging and fundamental challenge in any serious area of public policy.



Searching for a balance on Aboriginal affairs: join our conversation

  1. Looks like ANAC may be going one reserve at a time to identify problems.
    Here is the bad – lack of transparancy with where the money goes.
    “WINNIPEG — The chief and council of Manitoba’s Peguis First Nation paid themselves thousands of dollars in money earmarked for flood compensation, diverted thousands more to private consultants and hired unqualified staff as a make-work project for flood emergency operations.
    Those findings — obtained by the Winnipeg Free Press — are among the red flags raised by an independent management review and auditing firm in Ottawa.
    That outside review Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development ordered in November was tasked with tracking what happened to $10.5 million in federal flood-compensation funding.”
    Here is the good – band members are speaking up.
    “GIMLI – I would like to share some information and observations about Peguis First Nation.
    Glenn Hudson was first elected as chief March 2007 for a two year mandate. He was then re-elected for another two year term in 2009. I would like to discuss the following issues of band finances (debt and audits), transparency, accountability, unemployment, education funding, and the problem of power and personal favour. ”  

  2. Ther can be no doubt that the problems of the aboriginal community are complex and need to be resolved. Transparency on how federal dollars are utilized is just one aspect, but an important one.
    The proper management of these funds is of paramount importance to a lot of Canadians who are fed up with hearing about the problems on reserves despite the billions of dollars allocated for their support. Until Aboriginal organitrions can show positive progress in this area, sympathy for them will always be skeptical at best.

  3. So much intellectual wheel spinning/reinventing by professional post 1846’s and seasoned chiefs. Older concepts of fixing the ‘indian problem’ evolving into new streamlined, innovative concepts and work plans. As an Interim Measure ( I learned that term from the 5% treaty lovers in my res ), I say change one word in the Indian Act.   Change -Monthly Band Council Meeting to Monthly Band MEMBERSHIP Meetings.  Rather than infinitly debating the ramifications of such a rewording…Just do it while working on the conceptual reworking or dismantling of this colonial legislation.

    Arnie Jack
    Tsilqotin / Secwepemc
    Williams Lake Indian Band Opposition

  4. Only $100 million was allocated for Literacy. $275 M is the total allocated for education in this budget, including the $175 M for building and renovating schools.

  5. Thanks so much Maclean’s, CPAC and First Nations leaders for giving the average Canadian some insight…at the very least, it was exactly what I wanted to see – a frank discussion with some historic, present and future information –  what the First Nations want in terms of structural change and more importantly, what they need and what they want to see happen ! Thank you for opening my eyes.  I’d like to see this type of open discussion on First Nation issues every few months. I think the average Canadian wants to know what they can do – but they don’t even know where to start! The average Canadian wants to know how to influence the changes that are required to help advocate for First Nations in this country – how to give freedom to our indigenous people.  After hearing this discussion, I believe with hard work, it can be done.