Talking First Nations policy with the experts in Winnipeg

National Chief Shawn Atleo is a smooth performer—but his policy answers are abstract

Even with the Jets out of the playoffs, it’s been fine to be in Winnipeg the past couple of days. Good coffee and muffins down at the Mondragon; the striking architecture of the innovative Manitoba Hydro Place building out my hotel window.

Photo by Marianne Helm for Maclean's Magazine

But my official reason for being here was yesterday evening’s CPAC “In Conversation with Maclean’s” panel discussion, at the always impressive Winnipeg Art Gallery, on the theme “First Nations in Canada: Is there a way forward.”

Along with our Paul Wells and CPAC moderator Peter Van Dusen, the panel was loaded with insight: National Chief Shawn Atleo of the Assembly of First Nations, Manny Jules, chief commissioner of the First Nations Tax Commission, and Charlene Lafreniere, a city councillor from Thompson, Man.

If you didn’t catch the two-hour show and are interested, CPAC will be rebroadcasting today at 3 p.m. eastern time, 2 p.m. central and noon on the West Coast. What can you expect to catch? From my catbird seat, I was intrigued by the respectful but smoldering dispute between Atleo and Jules. Atleo’s AFN opposes Jules’s argument that reserve communities must, in order to drive their own economic development, gain direct control of their property from Ottawa, and that private ownership of that land should be made possible for First Nations communities that want to go that route. The government has promised reforms to allow something along those lines, and this is shaping up as a volatile issue. From audience last night, one Aboriginal woman protested angrily that Jules’s concept is foreign to First Nations, but he makes a powerful case.

Coming from my beat on Parliament Hill, I’m too used to hearing Aboriginal affairs debates that seem detached from reality. Last night, Lafreniere provided a welcome antidote to that tendency. She repeatedly brought the discussion back to the circumstances of Thompson, where her work as a municipal politician involves her in pragmatic efforts to promote education and economic opportunity. While she’s not what you’d call easygoing—she accused the media of “racism” in what she sees as undue emphasis on reporting about band-council corruption on reserves—there was an informed optimism in her answers.

As for the national chief, I’d rate Atleo the smoothest performer on the WAG stage. Still, I wonder how many viewers would share the tinge of frustration that underlies my admiration for his way with words. “The way forward is to value each other,” the National Chief said. Who would argue? The fundamental task, he repeatedly stressed in various ways, is to “reset” the relationship between First Nations and the federal government. But when I pressed him a couple of times for concrete precision on policy, I found his answers flowed ever toward the abstract.

I’ll be interested to hear how it all sounded to CPAC’s viewers.




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Talking First Nations policy with the experts in Winnipeg

  1. Private property rights in western world have allowed poor people to substantially improve their economic and social conditions by using their property. We deny basic property rights to Natives that we grant to every other Canadian. 

    Racist Indian Act should be abolished, Natives automatically own whatever home they live in now and reserves would be turned into prov parks or somesuch only to used by Natives for their cultural pursuits of hunting, fishing, hiking … etc. 

    H. De Soto ~ Mystery of Capital:
    “In The Mystery of Capital, the world-famous Peruvian economist takes up the question that, more than any other, is central to one of the most crucial problems the world faces today: Why do some countries succeed at capitalism while others fail?  Every developed nation in the world at one time went through the transformation from predominantly informal, extralegal ownership to a formal, unified legal property system, but in the West we’ve forgotten that creating this system is also what allowed people everywhere to leverage property into wealth.

    •  except there’s no magic wand for that tony.

      land claims for stolen aboriginal land notwithstanding I assume?

      •  Reserve lands are owned by natives.  All they need to do is allow individual ownership on the reserves.  Land claims are a completely different issue.

        • Totally wrong on the first point. Reserve land is owned by the federal government and is defined in the Indian Act as “… land, the title to which is vested in Her Majesty, that has been set apart by Her Majesty for the use and benefit of a band …”.

  2. Tony:The “racist indian act”..will NEVER be abolishished!
    Not because of lack of want by the vast majority of taxpayors but because first nations never give up the gravy train of welfare and handouts….My god they might have to work!
     It’s been tried many times to abolish it ….The natives said NO! 

    • Yes, the “natives” have a lot of say in Canada’s policies, don’t they? 

    • First Nations have said no to extinguishing aboriginal title established in the Proclamation of 1763, no to Canada walking away from its treaty obligations, and no to assimilation as wards of provincial welfare regimes. They’ve never said no to ending the paternalistic Indian Act and on the contrary have consistently demanded to be able to govern their own affairs.

      What you call “the gravy train” is Canada’s continuing debt to First Nations, owed for the transfer of lands and permission to create the nation that became Canada. Canada has been a shiftless and arrogant creditor, frequently late in payment, arbitrary in changing the amounts and terms of payment and obstreporous and litigious in response to valid disputes.

    • Some gravy train – substandard housing, education, healthcare & contaminated water!
      And contrary to your ignorant opinion – most 1st Nations people DO work.

    • Get a job?

      Reserve communities living in abject poverty cant just get up and say “man i have to give up this great life of welfare and hopelessness and find work that doesnt exist without an education that they never had access to.

      Move to a city and get an education like everyone else you might say?
      With what money and support?

      Come on.

  3. There are ample opinions as to how to fix the problems but none of them will ever be able to gain sufficient support to be implemented. I’m afraid that we’re stuck with the problem virtually forever.

  4. “one Aboriginal woman protested angrily that Jules’s concept is foreign to First Nations”

    Exactly.  There’s the problem right there.  It’s foreign, and it shouldn’t be.

    They’ve had no problem making use of snowmobiles planes and other western inventions. So they should have no trouble making use of property rights.

  5. “The way forward is to value each other,” the National Chief said. Who
    would argue? The fundamental task, he repeatedly stressed in various
    ways, is to “reset” the relationship between First Nations and the federal government

    You’re being kind by calling that abstract.  I call it BS.

    Once again he’s putting the blame on the feds for a problem that exists on native reserves. 

    And once again he’s putting the cart before the horse.  The relationship will be “reset” when people admire the success of the reserves.  There is no problem with the underlying relations between natives and others, there is a problem with the state of native reserves.  Until that problem is solved, the reserves will be viewed unfavourably.  What needs to be “reset” are the reserves, and the ownership of property will be a first step.

  6. I was captivated by this broadcast and intend to watch more CPAC – often the only thing worth watching. I am impressed by the new Aboriginal leadership who are educated, eloquent and have some creative ideas. I am also reading more and learning about the policies & transgressions that have hurt so many First Nations people. We need to help them develop and reach their goals. These nations were badly treated by our ancestors  so in the true Canadian spirit of cooperation, let’s help them and it starts by listening to them.
    Yes, some band chiefs need to be replaced and new ones shown how to manage their budgets. Accountability, education and oversight must be introduced to some poorly run reserves; unfortunately transgressions in this area make headlines. However they are not alone in the fine art of cheating and mis-spending.
    Whatever they decide to do about property rights is their decision. Some bands are going to like Atleo’s ideas and some will prefer Manny Jules ideas because there are wealthy and poor areas but I expect Canada will accommodate whatever decision is reached.
    If you have not watched 8th Fire on CBC, do yourself a favour. It should be required viewing to graduate from high school. Pick it up online…..

  7. If first nations allows property ownership to be mortgaged or sold, in time there will be no more territory’.

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