Our problem isn’t the model, it’s paternalistic implementation,
says the Union of Ontario Indians’ JOHN BEAUCAGE


The key to first nations forging a better relationship with the rest of Canada is not an exhaustive overhaul of existing parliamentary legislation. Rather, it is overcoming the paternalistic attitude that aboriginal peoples are not capable of managing our own affairs.
There’s been much discussion about aboriginal issues over the past 18 months since the Canadian government began to work with aboriginal organizations to improve the lives of first nation, Métis and Inuit citizens. But the most important aspect of November’s first ministers meeting in Kelowna was not $5-billion in federal commitments to improve aboriginal indicators in health, education, housing, and economic development opportunities.
The real breakthrough was that aboriginal leaders sat around the Kelowna table on a nation-to-nation basis with Canada’s federal and provincial premiers to have their opinions heard about what is best for their citizens and communities. This should not be a landmark event — but in a country still afflicted by colonialism, it is.
Previous governments have urged the need to “modernize” the 129-year-old Indian Act. Armchair critics (most of whom have never set foot on a reserve) have suggested scrapping the Indian Act and the treaty-entrenched rights of aboriginal peoples. This simplistic approach is fuelled by years of frustration over failed federal Indian policy and its assumption that Indians need to be assimilated to succeed, which Canada admitted was racist and wrong-headed in a 1998 Statement of Reconciliation.
Members of Parliament elected on Jan. 23 need not launch radical legislative reforms if they truly want aboriginal peoples to contribute to this country’s success. They simply need to change the way they and other Canadians look at first nations people and their rights. The residents of Kashechewan, Ont., do not want to have to flee each spring when the Albany River floods its banks or pollutes their drinking water. Gull Bay First Nation citizens do not enjoy living in Thunder Bay motel rooms because their government-built homes are poisoned with mould. Urban Indians do not relish unemployment rates triple that of their neighbours. Yet these situations can be remedied by political will; they do not require legislative change.
Aboriginal families have the same wants and needs as other families: meaningful employment, healthy and reasonably priced living conditions, and access to good schools and recreational facilities. MPs can help create these keys to self-sufficiency by ensuring that, wherever they live, aboriginal people have access to the same education, training, and social safety nets as other Canadians.
The Conference Board of Canada predicts that by 2025 this country will face a skilled labour force deficit of 1.2 million people. “We need to encourage more young people, especially women and aboriginals, to enter skilled trades and technical programs,” says Sam Shaw, president of the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology.
This is the prism through which Canadians must view aboriginal peoples: to see a potential for success that has led to the creation of 30,000 aboriginal-owned businesses, and postsecondary enrolment of 40,000 aboriginal students. But we cannot truly break the cycle of dependency until Canada’s leaders honour legal treaty obligations to let us share in the wealth derived from our lands.
The first step is for Canada’s political leaders to demonstrate their belief that, given a level playing field, aboriginal peoples are as capable of self-sufficiency as any other group. Our own models of governance have stood the test of time. The Haudenausonee (Iroquois) developed a confederacy framework that was copied by the framers of the U.S. Constitution, but outlawed by Canada at gunpoint. The 42 communities of the Anishinabek Nation are currently engaged in government-supported processes to restore our jurisdiction in such key areas as education, justice, and governance. Prime Minister Paul Martin’s signing of the Recognition of First Nations Government Accord was an important endorsement of our inherent right to self-government.
Certainly the Indian Act contains many archaic and condescending provisions; its designers did not assume that distinct aboriginal peoples and cultures would survive, let alone migrate by the thousands into urban centres.
But healthy attitudes, not legislation, are the key to all good relationships. My experience has taught me that aboriginal people are more likely to accept their responsibilities when other Canadians respect their rights.

John Beaucage is the Grand Council Chief of the Anishinabek Nation, an alliance of 42 member communities represented by the Union of Ontario Indians.