Robert Nault, former Indian affairs minister, on Idle No More

Chief Theresa Spence is creating a 'pressure cooker'

Robert Nault is watching the First Nations protests now dominating Canadian news from a unique perspective. As Jean Chrétien’s Indian affairs minister from 1999 to 2003, Nault tried to modernize the way reserve communities manage their finances and elect their councils. But the Assembly of First Nations vilified him for it, and the Liberal government abandoned his reform push after Paul Martin took over from Chrétien as prime minister. Nault now divides his time between Northern Ontario and British Columbia, working as a consultant and negotiator for First Nations communities. He spoke with Maclean’s by phone today; this is an edited version of the conversation:

Q What do you think would need to happen for the “Idle No More”  protests to open a path toward real progress?

A I think we have to get away from just the government and the Assembly of First Nations, and start looking at some form of all-party committee that’s been given a green light to work with Aboriginal leadership.

Q Why has progress been so painfully slow, or non-existent, for so long?

A One problem is that we’re trying to do this nationally, with all First Nations at the table all at the same time, when they are all at different stages in their preparedness or willingness to see change. What you’ve got to do is allow First Nations to opt in when they are ready. Start with First Nations in British Columbia, where they seem ready to move forward. And start with education.

Q Why tackle education first?

A You need to get away from a single reserve, often a small community, having a school board and all the structure that goes with it. You have to connect First Nations education with the rest of the education system, which is provincially run.

Q But wouldn’t that require complicated negotiations between the federal government, with its responsibility for First Nations, and provincial governments, with their education jurisdiction? You’re not suggesting provinces pay for schooling on reserves, are you?

A I just think they need to be connected. Teachers can’t be isolated because they work in a First Nation community. That’s why you see teachers quitting so often. They really do need the support that goes with being part of a larger group. We wouldn’t transfer jurisdiction for First Nations education to provinces. We would connect them together so they could have greater success. First Nations education is being underfunded grossly, and because of that kids are not getting the same education on reserve and they do off reserve.

Q Because of the reforms you attempted as Indian affairs minister, your name is sometimes associated with calls for band councils to be made more accountable. What do you think of the Conservative government’s First Nations Financial Transparency Act?

A Well, it’s a very small piece of the puzzle. I never looked at transparency from the aspect of First Nations being transparent for the federal government; I looked at it as transparency for First Nations citizens. That’s the way it should work, not the First Nations being accountable to Ottawa. There’s a lot more to governance than that. The biggest problem [for small reserve communities] is they are having trouble keeping up with the paperwork because they don’t have the staff to do it. They never have. That’s been overlooked over and over again.

Q What do you think of Chief Theresa Spence’s hunger strike?

A I don’t think that’s the way to approach this. You create a pressure cooker. No matter what the Prime Minister does next Friday [in his planned meeting with an Assembly of First Nations delegation, including Spence] he won’t meet expectations, because it’s not that simple. It’s not appropriate for elected leaders to put their lives at risk. I don’t think we need to go that far in our country.