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Book Excerpt: What's Happened to Politics

10/13/2015 12:10 EDT | Updated 10/13/2016 05:12 EDT
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Peace Tower in Ottawa, Canada

The fastest growing population in Canada is indigenous people. Their birth rate on reserves and in cities is high, and as children finish primary school, the exodus to urban centres picks up. In my work as an advocate for the First Nations in Ontario, I have seen that the federal government is not worried about that fact, because they interpret the constitutional responsibility for "Indians and lands reserved for Indians" in s.91 of the Constitution in the narrowest way and so pay scant attention, outside the blunt instrument of the criminal law, to what is happening in the major growth centres.

There was a time, not so long ago, when it was thought that Aboriginal people would disappear completely. The 1923 Williams Treaties in Ontario between the Crown and the Mississauga and Chippewa literally contained an "extinction clause." This dictated that whatever land and money was awarded to these Aboriginal people under the treaty had to be returned to the province of Ontario once the Aboriginal people disappeared.

Back at first contact in the sixteenth century, there were as many as 2 million people living in what is now Canada. European diseases decimated the population through one plague after the next. Add the violence that accompanied the new colonialism, and by 1871 the census only reported 100,000 Aboriginal people in Canada.

The government's plan was to bring that number to zero by assimilation. For a long time, the Indian Act dictated that any recognized Indian would lose status by voting, receiving a university degree, serving in the military, becoming a clergyman or lawyer, or marrying a non-native or non-status person. Death by a thousand clauses, or so the plan went.

It failed, not least because of the tremendous resilience of Aboriginal communities. In 2014, there were about 1.4 million Aboriginal Canadians, and given that population's consistently high birth rate, that number is swelling rapidly.

This trend will only grow, and the education, social service, and health care costs are, again, taken up by someone else further down the line.The implications of this population boom were widely discussed by the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples in the 1990s and then promptly ignored. The one emphatic response of the last decade -- Paul Martin's Kelowna Accord, negotiated for over a year between Aboriginal leaders, the federal cabinet, and the provinces -- was scrapped days after Mr. Harper took office. Its replacement has dramatically increased the incarceration rate among Aboriginal people and made an attempt to deal with the education agenda, and scant else. Mr. Harper gave an eloquent apology for the truly disastrous and racist policy of forcing First Nations children into residential schools, but the government never followed those words with the actions that would show any seriousness of purpose.

For all the rhetoric about nation building, the unresolved relationship between indigenous people and other Canadians and their governments stands out emphatically as nothing less than our national shame.

Excerpted from What's Happened to Politics? by Bob Rae. Copyright (c) 2015 by Robert Rae. Excerpted with permission by Simon & Schuster Canada.

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