OTTAWA - Federal attempts to repair the much-hated Indian Act are not going to work because First Nations have not been involved in designing the way forward, says the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations.
Shawn Atleo says Ottawa has taken a piecemeal approach to First Nations reform — fiddling with education here, clean drinking water there — without tackling the fundamental problem of aboriginal treaties and rights not being respected.
"You've got to do them at the same time. They are one piece," Atleo said Friday in an interview.
Ottawa has promised repeatedly — through treaties, a UN declaration, and most recently a high-profile summit with Prime Minister Stephen Harper — to jointly develop solutions that respect long-standing agreements with First Nations — all to little avail, he said.
"The expectations and understanding has not been a shared one," Atleo said. Instead, Ottawa "is fixing flaws from a unilateral, one-dimensional perspective which does not reflect the promise of treaty."
Conflict, unrest and interminable legal challenges are the inevitable result unless Ottawa finds the political will to co-operate, he added.
"Does it not make sense that we do this together?" he said. Otherwise, "we're bound to repeat the pattern."
Atleo is proposing a series of steps that would see First Nations governed mainly by rights enshrined in the Constitution and sharing more fully in the proceeds of resource development.
"If we believe in our Constitution, and if we believe in the promises we made to one another in the early days of this nation, it is incumbent upon us to find the way forward," he said in a speech at a symposium on governance.
The federal government responded by citing a list of the changes it has already made.
Jan O'Driscoll, a spokesman for Indian Affairs Minister John Duncan, pointed out a bill that makes band electoral procedures more transparent, a bill to improve matrimonial rights, a commitment to develop legislation to improve education on reserves, and a promise to make the land claims process more efficient.
Plus, the Conservatives are backing a private member's bill that would repeal parts of the Indian Act.
"Our government recognizes that the Indian Act is an impediment to the success of many First Nations communities. That is why, since 2006, the Harper government has taken steps to provide tangible alternatives and improvements to the Indian Act," O'Driscoll said.
It's exactly that kind of response that proves his point, said Atleo.
"Government's response has often been limited, narrow, piecemeal and unilateral," he said in his first major attempt since being re-elected last summer to set out next steps for First Nations self-governance.
He wants a thorough audit of all aboriginal policies to see if they are compatible with the Constitution's recognition of aboriginal rights — because he believes in many cases, they are not.
"Yes, the Indian Act and the Indian Act bureaucracy must be fundamentally and finally eliminated. But ... attempts to tinker or impose will not work," Atleo said.
Instead, First Nations must be equal partners in designing a path towards self-government, Atleo said. First Nations leaders need to develop their own capacity to govern, and eventually oversee all major functions of a state: citizenship, justice, economic development, health, education and social services.
Atleo also wants to speed up resolution of comprehensive land claims. Ottawa has decided to walk away from claims that are taking too long to settle, while the AFN wants to see a fundamental reform of the process that would more fully recognize aboriginal rights.
"The economic imperative makes this just common sense for any government of any stripe to be compelled to resolve," he said.
Hundreds of billions of dollars in investment in natural resources is at stake, since companies are often not certain who owns the land and resources they want to develop, he added.
Atleo also called for a code of conduct to guide Ottawa in fulfilling its responsibilities to First Nations. For now, the courts have recognized that the Crown must act honourably in dealing with aboriginal communities, but that edict lacks definition.
"Canada continues to not even have a policy or approach to implement or monitor its treaty relationship with First Nations, even though the treaties are the founding documents of this country," he said.
"This is essential and a requirement for the implementation of the spirit and intent of the treaties."
And he wants to dump the massive Department of Aboriginal Affairs, replacing it with a First Nations auditor general, a treaty commissioner and a smaller department to monitor the First Nation-Crown relationship.
As it stands, the department is a massive bureaucracy that costs a billion dollars a year and does little for the living conditions of aboriginal peoples, he said.
"The clock is now ticking, with increasing pressure on lands and resources and increasing frustration and tension," Atleo said.
"We have seen the tragedies that explode when patience runs out."