In 2008, former Indian and Northern Affairs Minister Robert Nault noted some politicians believe Aboriginals will eventually abandon their traditional lifestyles and become assimilated in the general population. He also said many bureaucrats don’t accept that First Nations constitute legitimate governments.
If he’s right on both counts, it would help explain Ottawa’s reluctance to rework the paternalistic relationship it has with Canada’s 1.2 million Aboriginals.
Despite numerous amendments, the Indian Act of 1876 continues to frame relations between Ottawa and Aboriginals. Particularly since 1969, when a federal White Paper on Indian Policy called for a repeal of the Indian Act, the relationship has had two dominant themes: Calls for more funding to alleviate problems of education, health and poverty; and the transfer of responsibility for governance and accountability to aboriginals.
In 2002, Nault introduced the Chrétien government’s solution — the First Nations Governance Act. The legislation was a major effort to alter governance and accountability on reserves and bring First Nations people under the umbrella of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. While a majority of rank-and-file reserve residents supported the bill, Aboriginal leaders balked, partly because no new money was proffered and because they didn’t want light shone on band financial management.
But by 2005, Jean Chrétien was gone and Paul Martin was prime minister. Along with Aboriginal leaders and provincial premiers, he devised his alternative — the Kelowna Agreement. This time, it was not about governance, but money, specifically $5 billion to be spent over five years to achieve targets related to education, housing, health and economic development.
Martin’s minority Liberal government was soon replaced by Stephen Harper’s minority Conservatives.
Initially in favour of the Kelowna Accord, the Tories gradually backed away from its aggressive spending in favour of incremental improvements — extending human rights legislation to reserves, speeding up land claims settlements, protecting Aboriginal womens’ rights, and investing in non-reserve Aboriginals.
In fairness, the Harper government has made considerable progress on the Aboriginal file, but the basic issues — paternalism, lack of adequate governance and accountability, and, of course, poverty — continue to tarnish relations between Aboriginals and other Canadians.