CPAC round-table: First Nations in Canada: Is there a way forward?

Manny Jules, Shawn Atleo, Charlene Fafreniere, and Paul Wells & John Geddes of Maclean’s discuss the future

Looking for a way forward
Photograph by Marianne Helm

Last week in Winnipeg, Maclean’s and CPAC hosted a round-table conversation entitled, “First Nations in Canada: Is there a way forward?” In this wide-ranging discussion about one of the country’s most pressing national issues, Maclean’s columnist Paul Wells and Ottawa bureau chief John Geddes were joined by Shawn Atleo, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, Manny Jules, chairman of the First Nations Tax Commission, and Charlene Lafreniere, a city councillor in Thompson, Man., and co-chair of the Urban Aboriginal Strategy initiative. The discussion was moderated by CPAC’s Peter Van Dusen. The following is an edited excerpt.

Paul Wells: It’s been a complex year on the Aboriginal affairs file. It began just before the New Year with the revelations of the desperate situation in Attawapiskat. Along came the surprising news of the Crown-First Nations gathering and of Stephen Harper allowing himself for the first time I can remember to be outnumbered by people who might not agree with him on everything in front of TV cameras.

It seemed like a bold step, and yet the follow-up has been tentative. In the budget there was new money for Aboriginal education, but less money on that file than the Aboriginal Affairs Department has been asked to cut in general over the next three years. There’s been a cap on transfers to First Nations communities since 1996, originally as a deficit-fighting measure, of two per cent per year, in communities that are growing way faster than two per cent per year. That cap stays in place. The First Nations Statistical Institute, which tells us specifically where the problems are, is going to be shut down. The National Aboriginal Health Organization is being shut down. And it’s not clear to me that Stephen Harper has a vision or a plan. I’m making a pretty good living writing about Harper as an incrementalist. You can be incremental, but when the house is on fire it doesn’t really help. So tonight, at least, I’m a little pessimistic.

John Geddes: I find myself in the unfamiliar position of thinking that I’m going to defend the government here. It’s true the recent budget did have cuts for Aboriginal Affairs in it, but compared to other departments in the federal government, not deep cuts. And to the degree that there’s new money on the table, or reallocation of funds, it seems to be going in promising directions, keeping up the building of new water infrastructure in reserves, some new money for education. More important than the cash that’s on the table, I would guess—if I was defending the kind of incremental approach Prime Minister Harper is behind—are some of these steps: the promise of a First Nations education act, which I think could be an important thing, and an interesting and challenging promise to have some kind of private property rights on reserves coming into effect in the near future, too. So maybe these are incremental steps, but probably a little bolder than we saw in the first few years of the Harper government, and in the face of a government-wide austerity push, not as much austerity as I think many First Nations leaders would have feared going into this budget season. So I see some cause for optimism.

Peter Van Dusen: What is the state of the relationship between First Nations and the Crown, and how do we move that relationship forward?

Manny Jules: Just to combine the discussion on the relationship with the First Nations-Crown meeting, in my view only half of the Crown was there. In order for us to move our agenda forward we definitely need to involve the provincial governments, because a lot of the areas of jurisdiction that we’re pursuing are in the provincial purview. And the other important thing the Prime Minister said on Jan. 24 is that he wasn’t prepared to just simply blow up the Indian Act, that it had long roots and a long history in this country. That goes back to the 1968 consultation process when Trudeau wanted to blow up the Indian Act. And the fact of the matter is that any changes that are going to happen in this country, the leadership has to come from First Nations people. If that doesn’t happen then we’re going to end up with the status quo. But the solutions are very simple, in my view: if you don’t have an economic focus, if you’re not thinking about how we’re going to be part of the national economy and therefore the global economy, we’re just going to be repeating the kind of programs and the handouts that have been given to our people. Our people deserve more than that.

Van Dusen: What is the reluctance? Is everybody in agreement that the Indian Act needs to be blown up, or is there a reluctance to do that?

Shawn Atleo: No one in this room wrote that Indian Act, none of us threw open the doors to those residential schools, but there was a collective recognition that we needed to close them down, and that there does need to be a path of reconciliation. So if you were to just take one example, education, right now K-12 education is within the Indian Act. It makes no sense for education to be within the Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs, it must be up to First Nations to design and control that. First Nations have been leading that effort since the 1970s. After all, if the residential schools under the guise of education sought to remove children from their homes, families, treaties, teachings, language and heritage, should education not be one of the major tools, not only to put those pieces back to support First Nations youngsters, but to facilitate reconciliation between First Nations and the rest of Canadian society?

Van Dusen: So are there ways to work around some of those provisions, open up the Indian Act, in effect? Do you need to get rid of it completely, or do we start now by finding a way to work within it?

Atleo: We should be clear, there are some First Nations who have negotiated their way out from the Indian Act. Some are in negotiations as well. But broadly, First Nations seek the recognition of their treaty right to education in this one instance. Under the status quo, as the outgoing auditor general said, things were getting worse. Her conclusion was that governments must work with First Nations in full partnership.

Charlene Lafreniere: I completely agree with what’s being said regarding education. From my perspective as a city councillor in an urban environment, people say the answers are in the communities. In Thompson we’ve recognized this through the Aboriginal accord. It acknowledged the traditional territory, it acknowledged the contributions of Aboriginal people building the city. One place where we’re seeing success right now is we’ve had an announcement of a decommissioning of a smelter and refinery of the mine, which is not our only economic base but is definitely a strong pillar in our community. Because of the Thompson Aboriginal accord, who are the people at the table to develop this economic action plan for our region? It’s Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak, the northern chiefs, the Keewatin tribal council, the Manitoba Metis Federation, the Nisichawayasihk Cree Nation, the Northern Association of Community Councils, our chamber of commerce and our economic development corporation. That’s who’s sitting at the table, and that’s who’s coming up with solutions for our community.

Jules: I think one of the critical components—and I referred to it earlier on—is when you have a population that’s completely dependent on the federal government for federal transfers—95 per cent of its budget— that has to change. We have to move toward a revenue stream that is independent of government so that we can determine our own priorities. If we continue on the path we are—which is, in my view, just simply a dependence approach—we’ll never break that cycle.

Wells: What would that autonomous revenue source be?

Jules: If you have your own economy it could be resource revenue sharing. It could be commercial development. It could be individual home ownership so that you don’t have to go to the minister of Indian Affairs to co-sign a loan for you.

Van Dusen: Not everybody agrees with the private property approach. I think you have some concerns, Shawn Atleo, about private property ownership on reserves?

Atleo: I respect Manny and his work advocating as an individual for this notion. The chiefs did consider and did reject the idea for fear of undermining the sacred treaty relationship about holding property in common for future generations. They discussed amongst themselves the notion that communities like Dakota Whitecap, or Membertou in the east, or Westbank in the west have successful common-held property type regimes in place and have created booming economies. And so the shared goal or vision is absolutely to create economies, that’s what First Nations aspire to, that’s the work that pressed toward the First Nation-Crown gathering. What I’m really thankful for, as I sit here with you, is that there are increasing numbers of business and economic leaders.

Geddes: Manny, how do you see the balancing of your idea of having some private property rights and maintaining some kind of sense of collective identity and community?

Jules: In exactly the same way Canada does it. Canada doesn’t say that individuals cannot have individual private property rights. As a matter of fact, Canada encourages that. In my view, individual rights are the epitome of collective rights. You can’t have one without the other. The collective strength that Canada has is because of individual Canadians, and the same holds true with myself as a Shuswap, because without me and others there is no Shuswap nation. I want the federal government to transfer its title, which it holds under the Indian Act, to the collective interest known as the Kamloops so that it would be held in perpetuity by my people forever. Once that title is transferred, it frees the imagination of individual community members within Kamloops to be able to mortgage a home on their own, because right now you have to go to the band council, and that band council has to go to the minister of Indian Affairs. If you believe the AFN or the Department of Indian Affairs, it’s either going to take 200 years or 850 years to catch up to the backlog of housing. In other words, it’ll never happen.

Atleo: I think we have to be dissuaded from this notion that there is a magic bullet that’s going to take us to the promised land. If this was easy work it would have happened a long time ago, we wouldn’t be having this conversation tonight. It is going to take hard work. There’s naturally deep fear and mistrust about whether a concept like this, another sort of externally brought concept, is going to be good for First Nations. What needs to happen now is not to overstep the treaty and Aboriginal titling rights of First Nations, not to look within the confines of the current systems, but to support innovation, to support First Nations to be fully freed as self-determining peoples to design solutions that are going to work for them. We’ve had a litany and a legacy of ideas that have come in that are supposedly good for First Nations. It’s about time First Nations decided for themselves.

Jules: I’m glad the national chief said that he recognizes the right of individual communities to choose their own path, because I think that’s critically important as we begin to move forward.