As commentators dissect last week’s confrontations between the Harper government and various First Nations Chiefs and leaders, the situation is obviously at a delicate point – presenting real risks, but also opportunities.
While some will blame the Aboriginal side for being unclear, too theoretical or having a poor track-record, the same criticisms could apply to the government. There’s lots of blame to go around. The onus for making progress now rests on the Prime Minister. He’s the one who holds power and he always likes to tell us that he’s the one “who makes the rules.”
That was clearly demonstrated in 2006, the moment he took office, when he cancelled the Kelowna Accord. That fully-funded, five-year Accord laid out a plan to make progress on Aboriginal housing and water, healthcare, education, economic development and stronger governance (including the concept of a First Nations Auditor-General to ensure transparency and accountability).
It took nearly 24 months of careful dialogue to build the trusting relationship in which Kelowna was rooted. It included mutual benchmarks that progress would be measured against. The Accord had the support of the federal government, all 10 provinces and three territories, and the five national Aboriginal organizations – until Mr. Harper killed it.
Much goodwill was lost, but some hope was rekindled in 2008 when the government apologized for Canada’s sorry role in Indian Residential Schools. Sadly, there was little follow-up. The same happened in 2011 after out-going Auditor-General, Sheila Fraser, described Aboriginal communities as the most impoverished people in the country – nothing changed.
Then, a year ago, in response to the widely reported misery at Attawapiskat, Mr. Harper agreed to a Crown-First Nations Summit. But again, a year has passed with no progress, which brings us to the Idle-No-More movement, a hunger strike by Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence, and the tumult last week in Ottawa.
So where to from here? First, out of the glare of publicity, Mr. Harper needs to give Chief Spence the private but sincere assurance that the neglect of past years will be truly rectified. She must be persuaded to live, not starve.
Secondly, it will take time to restore the respect and trust that made Kelowna possible, especially in the complicated fields of treaty rights and land claims, but a credible beginning must be made very quickly. On the federal side, the government needs to be consultative, not unilateral. They must be prepared to serve the greater public good, not merely a narrow ideological base.
Third, immediate progress can be made in several areas. For example, a Royal Commission or other transparent inquiry could get to work on what happened to hundreds of missing and murdered Aboriginal women and girls.
The budget this spring could bring federal funding for the K-12 education of First Nations children up to the higher amounts-per-child that provinces invest in non-Aboriginal kids. And the feds could get rid of their “cap” on funding for post-secondary education and child welfare.
These things would be a start.