18. A Way Forward for Indigenous Canadians / La voie à suivre pour les Canadiens autochtones

(Policy papers 2012-2013)

Canada should accept the bold proposal from the Assembly of First Nations to abolish the Indian Act. Like other governments in Canada, the governing bodies of First Nations must be responsible to their own people, not to a federal cabinet minister. The new framework for self-government, to be negotiated as a treaty, should reduce bureaucracy and fragmentation and increase accountability. In the meantime, Ottawa should act immediately to raise the unacceptable standards of living of too many Aboriginal Canadians, including the majority who now live in urban centres. We should start with practical measures to improve health care and education.

Le Canada devrait accepter la proposition audacieuse de l’Assemblée des Premières Nations d’abolir la Loi sur les Indiens. Ce sont les conseils d’administration des Premières Nations et non pas un ministre fédéral, qui doivent être responsables de leurs propres populations, comme c’est le cas pour d’autres gouvernements au Canada. Le nouveau cadre pour l’autonomie gouvernementale, qui devrait être négocié comme un traité, devrait réduire la bureaucratie et la fragmentation, et augmenter la transparence. En attendant, Ottawa devrait agir immédiatement pour élever le niveau de vie inacceptable de tant de Canadiens autochtones, y inclut la majorité qui se trouve maintenant dans les centres urbains, en commençant par des mesures pour améliorer les soins de santé et l’éducation.


The fact that the plight of Aboriginal people still has to be singled out for special attention in the early 21st century should outrage all Canadians. How is it that we have been unable to move beyond intermittent bursts of anger about disgraceful living conditions and unfairly limited opportunities towards engineering real change? Federal expenditures on Aboriginal education have produced no discernible improvement, health care is substandard, housing conditions have worsened, incarceration and suicide rates are tragically high; on First Nations reserves, nearly 40% of water systems are substandard. We know all this, and yet we are mired in old thinking that leads us nowhere.

Most Aboriginal people in Canada are members of more than 600 First Nations, whose lives are still largely controlled by the 1876 federal Indian Act. The proposal from Shawn Atleo, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations (AFN), to do away with this dysfunctional legislative framework is challenging, but it is a challenge we should welcome. It would make band councils responsible primarily to their citizens, rather than to the federal minister of Aboriginal affairs. First Nations communities would establish new governance entities, including broader “national governments” encompassing multiple reserves. They would assume responsibility for the long-term management of local economies and the efficient and effective delivery of services to First Nations.

Comprehensive land claims agreements — our modern equivalent to the treaties signed since the early 18th century — have begun to build new governance arrangements into accords on territorial title and access to resources. These are templates to adapt and follow. But we need to commit to an ambitious, results-oriented treaty-making process. No one is well served by the historically glacial pace of negotiations, which is unfair to First Nations and also creates immense uncertainty on files such as resource development. The federal government needs to show that it is as determined to make a deal as its negotiating partners.

Repealing the Indian Act is an essential step, but it would require establishing a comprehensive framework that can provide consistency in the structures and operations of First Nations governance entities. Too much internal fragmentation would undermine the collective effectiveness of First Nations governments in justifying the extensive investments required to bring the standard of living of First Nations Canadians to acceptable levels. This framework cannot be imposed. It must be established through negotiation, as a watershed national treaty between the government of Canada and all First Nations. It would signal a new dedication to respecting First Nations autonomy and to renewing the Silver Covenant Chain that has symbolized our commitment to each other for centuries. (The Silver Covenant Chain was one of the foundational treaties between the British Crown and First Nations. It was first established in the late 17th century, and made clear that First Nations were not subjects of the Crown, but friends and allies.)

It is important in this process that we reduce the amount of back-and-forth red tape that currently ties up dealings between bands and federal bureaucrats, obscuring accountability. New financing arrangements with First Nations governments should be managed openly and accountably through recommendations by the arm’s-length Canadian Commission on Fiscal Transfers.

For the self-government project to be truly successful, we also have to take capacity-building in First Nations communities seriously. After almost 150 years under the Indian Act, the governance traditions of many of these communities have been seriously degraded. Rebuilding them would require participation from both government and civil society. Sadly, the present federal government has quietly undermined Aboriginal civil society in the 2012 budget. Federal defunding forced the First Nations Statistical Institute, the National Aboriginal Health Organization, and the National Centre for First Nations Governance to close their doors. The AFN, Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, and the Native Women’s Association of Canada were left no choice but to curtail many of their essential activities — including, of all things, health promotion. Slashing these funds was stunningly retrograde behaviour on the part of the federal government, and it will only deepen the profound challenges that must be overcome.

The structural changes supported by the AFN would be broad, sweeping, and historic. However, they should not distract us from the on-the-ground hardships faced by First Nations that demand immediate remedy. A particular focus must be on improving education and health care outcomes. The February 2012 report of the panel on K-12 on-reserve education, a joint venture of the AFN and the Department of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development, proposed to professionalize school management by introducing school boards, called First Nation Education Authorities, that would run schools in large areas — for example, all of southern Saskatchewan. These authorities would be democratically accountable to the First Nations living in the region, but the schools would no longer be administered primarily by individual band councils, which have unequal capacities because of variations in finances, location, and population size.

While the federal government maintains a unique constitutional relationship with First Nations, it must not forget its responsibilities to all Aboriginal peoples, including non-status First Nations, Métis, urban Aboriginals, and Inuit. These groups have too often been ignored by the federal government, and have fallen through the governmental cracks. And given Ottawa’s terrible track with providing services to status First Nations, it should come as no surprise that other Aboriginal groups are wary of being brought under the federal Aboriginal Affairs umbrella.  The national government can lead on improving the quality of living of all Aboriginal peoples, but that’s not a task it can accomplish alone. All levels of government must be involved, in a coherent and coordinated way.  This is precisely the role my proposed Council of Canadian Governments will play.  As Chair to the Council of Canadian Governments, the Prime Minister should pursue, on a priority basis, the creation of a set of ambitious development goals for urban Aboriginal Canadians, which all Canadian governments will commit to achieving.

The current model is broken, and fixing it must begin with governance. The federal government has proven unable to act effectively as the universal provider of services to remote communities across the country. If we refuse to depart from old responses to the social and economic pathologies afflicting First Nations and other Aboriginal people, the tragedy will continue to unfold, and we will continue to see little return on dollars spent. We need a fresh start. That means an end to the Indian Act. It also means a coordinated strategy for non-status Aboriginals.  We should move aggressively but pragmatically, to ensure that we address both the symptoms and the root causes simultaneously.