This is the final article in a four-part series that outlines the crisis of confidence in national governance and the urgent need for Canada to develop clear long-term national goals for which our federal government is directly accountable. Part 3 discussed a new approach to the formation of a national energy and environment strategy. The final section proposes a bold new approach to addressing Canada’s intolerable mismanagement of aboriginal affairs.
In this series, I have been writing about Canada’s inability to set clear, long-term national goals against which to measure our success in a number of key policy areas. Nowhere has this been more true than with aboriginal Canadians.
The fact that the plight of aboriginal Canadians still has to be singled out for special attention in the early 21st century conclusively demonstrates the urgent need for outside-the-box thinking and new institutional structures to support good governance. We have to move beyond the occasional bursts of outrage over news reports citing that extensive federal expenditures on aboriginal education appear to have produced no discernible improvement, that aboriginal healthcare is sub-standard and housing conditions have worsened, that incarceration and suicide rates among aboriginal Canadians are shockingly high, and that nearly 40 per cent of water systems on native reserves pose high levels of risk.
Chief of the Assembly of First Nations Shawn Atleo’s proposal to do away with the Department of Aboriginal Affairs and the dysfunctional legislative framework of the 1876 Indian Act is encouraging. This would mean that band councils would be primarily responsible to their citizens, rather than to the minister of aboriginal affairs. Aboriginal communities would establish new governance entities and assume responsibility for the long-term management of their local economies and the efficient and effective delivery of services to aboriginal Canadians.
But while repealing the Indian Act is a good step, a comprehensive framework providing consistency in the structures and operations of aboriginal governance entities is also required. Too much internal fragmentation will undermine the collective effectiveness of aboriginal governments in justifying the extensive fiscal transfers and other investments required to bring public services and the standard of living of aboriginal Canadians to acceptable levels.
New fiscal-transfer arrangements should be collectively negotiated with the federal government, while maintaining the shift of responsibility to aboriginal governments. It is important that we reduce the amount of back-and-forth red tape that currently exists between bands and federal bureaucrats, as it obscures accountability. These fiscal-transfer arrangements would be managed openly and accountably through the proposed arm’s-length national commission, which would also be responsible for other intergovernmental transfers such as health, education, social services, and equalization.
Furthermore, the proposed Canadian infrastructure financing authority would be responsible for leveraging the investment needed to advance high-quality infrastructure for aboriginal communities, just as it would do for the rest of Canada. Our federal leaders would be held accountable for our clear national commitment to provide equal opportunities and an acceptable standard of living for all aboriginal Canadians, and would have to be vigilant in ensuring that aboriginal governments’ expenditures were effectively devoted to this end.
To conclude this series on the urgent need to address the serious crisis of confidence in national governance, it is crucial to note that we are neither as difficult a country to govern, nor as complicated a people, as our politicians would have us believe. Despite the fact that Canada has 13 provinces and territories, six time zones, three oceans, and many languages, religions, and ethnic and national origins, Canadians have much in common. We are Canadians without borders – citizens from everywhere, with links to many countries and global networks that are enormously valuable economically, socially, and politically. And we are all contributing to a vibrant and youthful diversity that will sustain us for generations to come. The world is still a collage – plural, fragmented, a random collection of cultures, origins, and perspectives. Canada is where the collage becomes a coherent dynamic whole with a collective commitment to the best of universal values: equality, justice, the rule of law, fundamental rights and freedoms, and non-discrimination.
We are building a unique multi-ethnic liberal democracy that can be an inspiration to a world troubled by religious and sectarian friction. But we will fail to realize our potential as a great nation if our federal leaders continue to cast national politics as a boring, outdated struggle between supporters of smaller government and less spending, on the one hand, and bigger government and more spending, on the other – between supporters of private-sector initiatives and public initiatives; conservative values and liberal or socialist values. Such arguments are seriously out-of-sync with the rhythm of our times.
Good national government in the 21st century is much less about sterile debates over the size of government and levels of expenditure, and much more about providing ethical leadership, both nationally and internationally, and establishing firm national priorities across the full spectrum of issues that demand national attention. Going forward, we need creative and innovative ideas for governance and the management of public finances, and for new institutional structures designed to ensure a long-term focus – one that goes beyond the next election. We require new public spaces for citizen participation to facilitate solutions, compromise, and common ground on critically important issues and concerns.
Above all, we need to remind our national leaders that their job is to increase, not diminish, our internal strength and global potential, and that we are stronger when we act together. Together, we can restore coherent national leadership at home, and a clear Canadian voice on the world stage.