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Dear Harper, It's Time to Reset Your Relationship With Aboriginals

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Below is a joint letter my colleague, the Hon. Geoff Regan, and I sent to the Prime Minister regarding our concerns about the current relationship between the Crown and Aboriginal Peoples in Canada.

December 13, 2013

Dear Prime Minister,

We are writing to outline our deep and ongoing concerns with how your government has managed the relationship between the Crown and Aboriginal Peoples in Canada.

After your 2008 Residential Schools Apology there was a groundswell of goodwill from Aboriginal people and, despite a lack of follow-up after that seminal milestone, there was still a great deal of optimism when you promised to "reset" the relationship during the 2012 Crown First Nations Gathering. Unfortunately, the ongoing antagonistic approach of your government towards Aboriginal people has squandered the tremendous opportunities these symbolic gestures created for a more positive relationship with First Nations, Métis, and Inuit communities.

Two hundred and fifty years ago, the Royal Proclamation laid out how the richness of the land would be fairly shared. That hasn't happened. Upholding the relationship established by the Proclamation would ensure that Aboriginal people would have equitable access to Canada's natural resources.

Instead, your government has pursued a paternalistic and non-consultative approach with Indigenous Peoples in Canada, which not only fails to uphold the spirit of the Proclamation, but the government's legal duties flowing from treaties, inherent rights, the Canadian Constitution and the free, prior and informed consent required by the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. This is not only damaging the Crown's relationship with First Nations, Inuit and Métis in Canada, but will have a significant negative impact on the Canadian economy.

There is no question that a sustainably developed resource sector is essential to the success of the Canadian economy, serving as the foundation for future economic growth and good jobs for a greater number of Canadians. However, your documented categorization of Indigenous people as "adversaries" who impede resource and energy development, and your complete failure to make meaningful progress toward implementing Aboriginal inherent and treaty rights, improving educational outcomes or addressing unacceptable living conditions for too many Aboriginal people, is jeopardizing Canada's ability to move forward with developing those natural resources. Further, your unwillingness to resolve and implement treaties and land claims in a timely and fair manner not only undermines the Crown's relationship with Aboriginal communities, but creates legal uncertainty and jeopardizes economic development that would benefit both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people in Canada.

Your own Special Federal Representative on West Coast Energy Infrastructure, Doug Eyford, recently released a report making it clear that your government must improve relations and build trust with Aboriginal Peoples as a precondition to moving forward with any of the numerous west coast energy proposals. This not only echoes what Aboriginal people, the Canadian business community and Canada's courts have been saying for years, but reflects the state of affairs right across Canada in terms of natural resource development.

As you are aware, the Crown has historical and treaty relationships with Aboriginal communities in Canada that established legal rights for Indigenous People. These rights have been incorporated into the Constitution, upheld by the Supreme Court of Canada and include a duty of the Crown to consult with Aboriginal Peoples when their rights are impacted by government decisions. Further, almost every resource development activity currently operating or planned is within, or impacts, traditional Aboriginal lands. Time and time again, the courts have sided with Aboriginal people, yet your government has continued to wilfully ignore Aboriginal rights and pursued a pattern of litigation rather than consultation. This has simply led to unnecessary delay, increased costs and a further erosion of trust.

Aboriginal communities expect the government to involve them at the earliest stages of a project's planning and in the decision-making process. Mr. Eyford's report made it clear that this is not happening, stating "There has not been a constructive dialogue about energy projects." He went on to note that industry itself is frustrated by the lack of engagement from the government.

Unfortunately this revelation is not new. Your own former minister responsible for the Environment and Aboriginal Affairs, Jim Prentice, made this point a year ago, saying, "the Crown obligation to engage First Nations in a meaningful way has yet to be taken up." This is not only out of step with the Crown's legal responsibilities, but bad economic management, as it can compromise projects which might proceed if the government worked with, not against Aboriginal communities on project planning.

Mr. Eyford's also noted that, "Industry views Canada as having a role in addressing matters that go beyond project-specific proposals and regulatory reviews, such as improving educational outcomes, preparing Aboriginal people to be job ready, and addressing unresolved Aboriginal rights and title claims in British Columbia." This statement reflects a national reality.

The Canadian Council of Chief Executives has been clear that Aboriginal people must be "true partners" in resource and energy projects and have pointed out the proximity of Canada's resource and energy assets to Aboriginal communities. They have highlighted the fact that Canadian companies, particularly in resource industries, are facing skills and labour shortages and that the Aboriginal population is the youngest and fastest growing in Canada. Your refusal to even admit, let alone close, gaps in funding for First Nations' education is not only a failure to live up to the Crown's moral and legal obligations, but a missed opportunity to address one of the most important barriers to future economic growth.

Your failure to address the often third world living conditions in many Aboriginal communities further undermines the trust of First Nation's, Inuit and Métis and weakens our moral authority and credibility in the international community.

If we are to realize the potential of Canada's yet untapped natural resources, then you must also show the necessary leadership to bring all parties to the table -- the federal government, Aboriginal leadership, provinces and territories -- to work together to find a way to equitably share the benefits of resource development. Developing a framework around resource sharing will benefit everyone in Canada -- both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal. The legal certainty would unlock huge economic potential that would provide Aboriginal communities with sustainable sources of revenue and jobs and provide Canada with the economic growth we so desperately need.

In other words, you need to completely rethink your approach to dealing with Aboriginal Peoples, not only because of the need for social justice and respect for their Constitutionally protected rights, but because the failure to do so will have enormous negative impacts on the Canadian economy. We urge you to heed the advice of your own Special Federal Representative on West Coast Energy Infrastructure and implement his recommendations immediately. You must also apply the spirit of his approach to how you deal with First Nations, Inuit and Métis Peoples right across Canada.

Prime Minister, you promised a meaningful "reset" of the relationship between the Crown and Aboriginal Peoples in Canada. There is still time to fulfill that promise. We urge you to immediately change course and instruct all of your Ministers to honour your commitment to First Nations, Inuit and Métis in Canada.


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