Forward Motion

A new book charts a path forward for aboriginal peoples.

Canada has had its fair share of grand plans to improve the lives of aboriginal peoples. In 1969, Pierre Trudeau gave us the now controversial white paper. In 1996 the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples was released, mostly being ignored by politicians. In 2005 Paul Martin’s ambitious Kelowna Accord fell apart. These were the headline grabbers. But along the way there have been various other official reports and formal recommendations. If only because none have come even close to fulfilling their lofty goals, it is easy to understand those who are skeptical that we need more of them.

In his 2012 book, The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America, Thomas King writes, “for an individual, one of the definitions of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again in the same way and expecting different results. For a government, such behaviour is called … policy.” Yet here we are, about to do it all over again. Last year, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada issued its final report with 94 recommendations. While the commission’s task was to look at the residential schools system under which many thousands of aboriginal students faced abuse and even death, the commission’s advice on how to get beyond the damage encompasses many elements of society. And now the federal government is calling for an inquiry into murdered and missing indigenous women, with a timeline of two years and a scope no doubt as broad if not broader than the TRC. It is hard not to feel report fatigue, regardless of one’s level of empathy. As Greg Poelzer and Ken S. Coates note in From Treaty Peoples to Treaty Nation: A Road Map for All Canadians, “we as a people, or peoples, need to stop looking for a single, sweeping solution, whether it be constitutional change, a government program, or a radical overhaul of Aboriginal governance.”

Will any of these efforts pay off when it comes to closing the gap between aboriginal and non-aboriginal life indicators such as income, education rates, life expectancy and, most tragically, suicide and child poverty? This is the underlying question Poelzer and Coates, both veteran scholars of aboriginal issues based at the University of Saskatchewan, ask in their latest collaboration. Readers will be pleased to discover they answer with an optimistic yes.

They are clear that aboriginal people “are facing serious, systematic, and some would say intractable problems.” But they go to great lengths to point out the many under-reported successes: “The revitalization of potlatches and powwows, the achievements of band-managed health care centres, the investment activities of community economic development offices, and the educational achievements of thousands of college and university students speak to a different future. There is a pattern worth noting: crises are noisy; accomplishments are quiet.” Even the crises, they note, come with a hint of accomplishment. The very fact the media knows about a scandal shows that average aboriginals feel increasingly empowered to speak up and demand accountability from their politicians.

The authors could stop here. There is certainly an argument to be made that aboriginal prosperity is plodding along slowly but surely. All we need to do is keep promoting education, economic development and political empowerment and the people will figure it out themselves: no more major rethinks are required. To leave it at that would also satisfy the many Canadians who are uncomfortable with the developing world conditions too many aboriginals face but who are also uncomfortable with the idea of radical change. And tomorrow’s history books may determine that the process of almost imperceptibly small victories is what ultimately brought aboriginal prosperity. That is, after all, largely the story of the emergence of the middle class in western societies in the past centuries.

But Poelzer and Coates still come to the table with recommendations big and small. The first third of the book is an overview of the scholarly literature on the subject. Everyone in media and public policy should keep this book on their desk if only for this thorough and enlightening section. Often academics deal with ideas that came before them only to show how theirs diverge. Poelzer and Coates position their ideas as building consensus and their recommendations as transcending political lines. Examples: embrace aboriginal self-governance, honour treaties and clarify aboriginal rights; ensure that accountability standards on reserves match those of other governments; increase personal contact between Canadians and aboriginal people, especially those on reserves; shut down or relocate some underperforming remote communities “at their choice of location and timing.”

Their most radical idea—arguably their version of a “single, sweeping solution”—is to create a commonwealth of aboriginal peoples. This would essentially take the responsibilities and budget of the Department of Indigenous and Northern Affairs and shift it all from under the umbrella of the federal government to a standalone entity managed by and for the aboriginal population. This would no doubt empower aboriginal people to feel like stakeholders in their own governance, rather than wards of the state, as they are now all too often treated.

The idea is akin to Canada’s longstanding conversation about the pros and cons of implementing a guaranteed annual income whereby anyone making under, say, $30,000 gets a top-up from the government to replace the many social assistance programs on offer. There would, of course, be a transition period where both the guaranteed annual income and the social assistance offices remain open. Here is where it gets tricky. When it comes time to close down the latter, excuses would invariably be found for the offices to remain open. Instead of efficiency and empowerment, we would just get more bloated bureaucracy. Would politicians resist the urge to make the commonwealth proposed by the authors nothing more than a duplication of the Indigenous and Northern Affairs Department rather than a replacement? Still, it is an idea that deserves further consideration.

Alongside these efforts is another challenge less specific than interpreting treaties or funding economic development, but it strikes at the heart of achieving aboriginal prosperity. And that is the idea of reconciliation. In a video on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission website, chair Justice Murray Sinclair explains that the residential schools system taught students they were inferior and non-aboriginal students were taught to agree. Reconciliation, broadly speaking, means getting beyond this narrative. It is no doubt hard to take on the world when you have been told you are afflicted with a human stain that will forever hold you back. This process, Sinclair says, is not a quick fix. It will take a couple of generations.

Poelzer and Coates argue Canada needs to adopt a statement of national reconciliation and perhaps even a government agency like Reconciliation Australia. “At the present time,” they write, “Canadians have been hamstrung by the absence of a statement of goals. Billions are spent annually on Aboriginal affairs, but there is no clear understanding of the purpose of this spending.”

The federal government is aiming for reconciliation and it is highly unlikely it will turn back—regardless of which party is in power. This was what inspired the government’s 2008 official apology for the residential schools. In ‑front of aboriginal leaders, Prime Minister Stephen Harper stood in the House of Commons and said: “We recognize that this policy of assimilation was wrong, has caused great harm, and has no place in our country.” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said last December he sought “true reconciliation” and campaigned on “a renewed relationship based on trust, respect, and a true spirit of cooperation.” The Liberal platform pledged an additional $2.6 billion for First Nations education, lifting the 2 percent cap on funding increases and creating an economic fund for Métis people.

Some Canadians rolled their eyes at these announcements, a common refrain being that enough taxpayer money is already being spent on aboriginal issues. While Poelzer and Coates would not agree—they discuss the merits of various spending initiatives—they do offer caveats as to why money alone will not suffice: “Government programs can go part of the way and provide important assistance; missing, though, has been evidence that the country as a whole cares about the aspirations of Indigenous people and their communities,” they write. Later they add: “The challenge—and it is just that—is not to create a government, agency, funding program, or coordinating committee. Instead, the aim is for spontaneity, for Canadian groups and organizations to identify needs and develop common responses to them.” Further still: “In this conception of Canada’s future, church groups, trade unions, business organizations, service clubs, sporting associations, and community groups are just as important as politicians and Supreme Court justices.”

It is with this argument that From Treaty Peoples to Treaty Nation lives up to its subtitle: “A Road Map for All Canadians.” The authors argue we should not merely leave it to government to take the lead. This is an issue for civil society as a whole, for its influence is far greater than a single federal department. Canadians who care deeply about aboriginal prosperity—and there are many—are likely achieving more by engaging in an act of goodwill toward their aboriginal neighbours, far or near, than by lobbying for a specific policy. It is through being good neighbours and expanding our sense of civil society to embrace aboriginal people fully in our collective sense of Canada that we will achieve true reconciliation.

However, there is one question the book does not answer. And this is what precisely a post-­reconciliation society looks like. There is great tension between two broad views. One is that aboriginal self-governance will flourish and the majority of reserves will grow as economic and political forces. The other is that aboriginal peoples are destined to further integrate into mainstream Canada, making their livelihood in non-aboriginal communities but maintaining their own culture.

As Poelzer and Coates note, many aboriginal leaders consider that “the goal of constitutional negotiations, legal struggles, and political negotiations is to secure recognition of Aboriginal distinctiveness and to lay the foundation for peaceful but separate coexistence.” While separate coexistence may unfold in a way that is economically prosperous for everyone, it is somewhat contrary to the values held by many contemporary Canadians.

Countless millions around the world have seen substantial increases in their living standards by coming together to share in technological developments, improved governance and a greater embrace of economic liberty. If separate coexistence ends up meaning aboriginal people have less access to humanity’s greatest accomplishments, then that is a tragedy. Clearly the answer to the reconciliation question will lie somewhere in the middle. The flight to the cities has continued, regardless of ethnicity. Statistics Canada data from 2011 puts urban dwellers at 81 percent of the population. The aboriginal population is around 60 percent urban. Both these figures will inevitably grow, due to a combination of personal choice and economic necessity.

Some observers believe this is gradually leading to the dismantling of aboriginal culture, intentional or otherwise. The idea that further integration between aboriginal and non-aboriginal people is ultimately a good thing for everyone gets labelled as advocating for assimilation or even cultural genocide. These strong reactions are understandable. If members of my family had been forcibly removed from their homes by the government supposedly for their own betterment and then were abused and degraded, I would be rather wary too.

However, the argument that immersion in broader society is nothing but colonial superiority is becoming increasingly hard to take seriously. John Ralston Saul writes in The Comeback, his 2014 book on emerging aboriginal prosperity, that “Europeans insisted that their principles were universal. Of course they were universal. After all, they said they were. They still say it, with the same old conviction.” For a book claiming to be forward looking, that last statement comes from a view stuck in the past.

Similarly, Thomas King’s The Inconvenient Indian, for all its insights, has a foundation resting on an analysis between white Europeans and aboriginal people. “The hope for Native peoples was that, with a little training and a push in the right direction, they would become contributing members of White North America,” he writes. “This was not to be a compromise between cultures. It was to be a unilateral surrender.” The bureaucrat who ran the residential schools more or less admitted as much. “I want to get rid of the Indian problem,” Duncan Campbell Scott notoriously said in 1920. “Our objective is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic.”

But that was almost a century ago. Does anyone seriously think a significant number of today’s influential Canadians—the type of people who set government policy—see indigenous issues in terms of a struggle between white people and aboriginal people? Canada today can no longer be categorized using simple racial divides. For example, Poelzer and Coates note that “many new Canadians do not share the general sense of collective responsibility for past injustices—a crucial point, given how formidable new Canadians are as a political force.” Plus European white peoples, however their diverse views break down, are less of the equation as their proportion of the population shrinks. Aboriginal activists and their allies need to keep this in mind when deciding which tactics to employ.

And all indications are that these trends will continue in the decades ahead. For young people today, the existence of multiculturalism is a simple fact. While the extent to which they embrace it may be up for debate, what is not at issue is the fact that they are used to it. Just as they can become used to aboriginal culture having a greater presence in their communities too. Regardless of where reconciliation takes us, one of the best acts of goodwill non-aboriginal people could undertake is to spread such a welcoming message. “Hey, come be my neighbour!” they might say. “Come be my kids’ school principal or dentist. The water’s warm! Everyone’s welcome!”

If there is one key message in a book that covers so much terrain, it is the argument From Treaty Peoples to Treaty Nation makes that, thanks to the productive steps, large and small, already being taken, we have reached a point where positive change has become self-sustaining. It is an important insight. For it means that despite all the challenges that lie ahead, the aboriginal narrative is increasingly a good news story.