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Premiers' Embrace of Aboriginal Issues Has Been a Long Time Coming

07/17/2015 05:09 EDT | Updated 07/17/2016 05:59 EDT
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The recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission were on the agenda of Canada's premiers, meeting at Happy Valley-Goose Bay earlier this week. The Premiers did more than discuss the wide-ranging recommendations. They took the unusual step of endorsing the lengthy list, with Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Paul Davis saying, "We will together, jointly, make this happen." It was a remarkable commitment, all the more so given the troubled history for provincial leaders on this file.

Longtime followers of these issues will remember the first ministers' conferences from the 1980s. Provincial premiers (territorial leaders were initially not included unless the meeting was dealing with territorial items) resisted First Nations and Inuit efforts to expand Aboriginal rights, and clearly saw themselves as separate from the federal government's agenda in this emerging and contentious field.

The political lines had been clearly drawn, with the premiers holding to the idea that responsibility for Aboriginal affairs rested firmly with the Government of Canada. The British North America Act (1867) was clear that "Indians and lands reserved for Indians" were federal duties. The provinces were fine with this in 1867 and still held to that position more than a century later.

It took a long time to change the premiers' minds, but change has arrived. British Columbia, which had long resisted an extension or recognition of aboriginal rights, proved pivotal to the transition. Premier Gordon Campbell, who even held a very odd and ineffective 2002 referendum to gauge provincial opinion on aboriginal rights, was a key convert. Premier Campbell supported Prime Minister Paul Martin's historic Kelowna Accord of 2005; Campbell was joined in the consultations and final agreement by provincial and territorial leaders from across the country. The Kelowna Accord did not survive the 2006 federal election, but the engagement of provincial and territorial premiers in the national discussion about aboriginal affairs remained an ongoing part of the Canadian political landscape.

Individual provincial governments have continued to move forward. When first elected in 2014, New Brunswick Premier Brian Gallant made promising statements about his government's determination to work with First Nations. The new Alberta Premier, Rachel Notley has made support for aboriginal issues a key element of her administration. British Columbia Premier Cristy Clark has made substantial efforts, particularly in the wake of the Tsilhqot'in decision by the Supreme Court of Canada in 2014, to reach out to First Nations. The Premier of Ontario, likewise, has engaged with aboriginal issues in new and promising ways.

It should be no surprise that Provincial and Territorial leaders are more fully engaged with aboriginal affairs, both at the political and administrative levels. First Nations, Métis and Inuit people are provincial and territorial residents, and a majority of aboriginal Canadians do not live on formal reserves. They use hospitals and schools, share the roads, participate in the workforce and have become an increasingly important part of the business community. Their issues and needs warrant provincial and territorial attention.

The precise line of demarcation on aboriginal affairs between federal, provincial and territorial governments remains indistinct, however, to put it politely. Northern Aboriginal leaders often speak of "jurisdictional chaos" in terms of defining responsibility for Indigenous matters. It is clear that a great deal of work remains to be done to clarify relationships and determine the best path forward. It is also obvious that Aboriginal Peoples and communities bear the brunt of political indecision and jurisdictional confusion. Collaborative progress is clearly needed.

What stands out about the premiers' commitment to implementing the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's recommendations is the clear national leadership that they have exercised. The federal government has been quite silent on the TRC interim report, indicating that its response will come after the receipt of the final document. Aboriginal support for the TRC agenda has been extremely strong, but non-aboriginal interest has been, to put it mildly, divided.

As often happens with aboriginal affairs in Canada, Indigenous leaders, organizations and people respond to the release of major reports with optimism, believing that documenting their social, cultural and economic struggles will spark a groundswell of public support for their issues. A quick review of the comment sections of newspapers, phone calls to talk-shows and other public input reveals a country with large pockets of strong opposition to extending government responsibilities to Aboriginal Peoples.

The premiers, by making such a clear commitment to the TRC recommendations, are in front of public opinion. They are doing what leaders should do: investigate a major issue of public interest, determine a course of action, and, without spending too much time looking at opinion pools, lay out of a plan of action. The collective statement by the premiers is a promising step along the road to reconciliation.

If there is a significant concern about the premiers' commitment, it is the standard one of producing unrealistic expectations. Aboriginal Canadians have received many promises over the decades, including the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples in 1996 and the Kelowna Accord. Most died without being implemented. They are used to be disappointed by political inaction and broken promises.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission produced a long and complicated set of recommendations. Some will be extremely costly to implement. Others are controversial -- or will be when put in place. A more promising premiers' response would have been to commit to working with aboriginal groups to determine which recommendations would take priority and to plan for implementation of the most pressing and promising items.

If the premiers truly want to demonstrate that the country has opted for a different path, they can move quickly, and collectively, to keep their commitment to real and lasting reconciliation with the First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples of Canada.

Ken S. Coates is a Senior Fellow with the Macondald-Laurier Institute (macdonaldlaurier.ca)

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