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.