01/25/2012 07:24 EST | Updated 03/26/2012 05:12 EDT

Let My People Go


Some are calling the meeting this week in Ottawa between the Harper Government and the Assembly of First Nations, "historic." In a way, I am sure it is. After six full years in power this is the very first time Harper and his ministers have taken the time to meet the chiefs. I'm not sure if that makes this historic, but the delay surely must be a record.

What I do know is historic is Chief Shawn Atleo's sense of urgency. He says that the AFN is searching for ways to "smash this status quo in tangible ways." I do not remember a chief ever using this kind of language to describe the onerous and debilitating Indian Act. His was a frustrated plea for action after decades of inaction and complacency.

While that is a positive development, the problem is far from one-sided. Provinces have responsibility for land off reserve, but claimed as "traditional territory" by First Nations. The treaty process designed to deal with these questions has been painfully slow and incredibly expensive. The result has is the spawning of an "Indian Industry" that keeps army's of aboriginal people, lawyers, consultants, and bureaucrats well fed.

"First Nations" themselves - numbering in the hundreds - are often hopelessly divided and their leaders frequently live very comfortable lives with the status quo, which is safer than the uncertainty of deep change. A profoundly entrenched culture of dependency within these communities has taken root. Changing that will taketime and political will from everyone involved.

Ottawa has been aware for at least 40 years that the relationship with aboriginal peoples -- our fellow citizens -- has been a dysfunctional mess and blight on our national soul. The Indian Act, which governs the relationship between the Government of Canada and aboriginal people living on reserves, is a throwback to colonial times. This law has barely ever been changed or modified in almost 150 years. It is a deeply parochial system that has literally handcuffed generations of people and kept them dependent on Ottawa for everything, including the basic necessities of life.

This is Apartheid. In Canada. Try as one might, but there is really no other way tolook at this law. The Indian Act has kept and is keeping fellow citizens, our brothers and sisters, in chains and handcuffs. They are literally wards of the state. And all they want -- all they ever truly wanted -- is to be free.

One way or another, all governments have tried to transform this relationship. In 1969, Pierre Trudeau issued a White Paper that proposed the abolition of the Indian Act and assimilation into the Canadian population. Brian Mulroney held a number of First Minister's meetings on aboriginal constitutional matters and worked hard to entrench the right to self-government. Jean Chretien struck a RoyalCommission chaired by George Erasmus and pushed for the passage of the First Nations Accountability Act. Both went nowhere. Paul Martin shaped and negotiated the Kelowna Accord to provide increased funding for aboriginal education. Harper turned his back on that deal.

Missing yet another opportunity to exercise real leadership, Stephen Harper said Tuesday: "Our government has no grand scheme to repeal or to unilaterally rewrite the Indian Act."

Of course he doesn't.

About five years ago, I was invited to a small dinner in Vancouver with Tom Flanagan, the author and University of Calgary professor. Flanagan had been a senior advisor andintellectual mentor to Stephen Harper. Flanagan described "gradual incrementalism," which is his and Harper's management mantra for making changes with continuous baby steps over time. How could that possibly apply to an area such as the Indian Act, I asked? Flanagan said the Act was no different. He said out loud what every politician from every party knows: Aboriginal issues are a cesspool, and an intractable mess. These issues pose only grave political risks, with precious little political return. So, the calculation is: Why bother?

What too many politicians fail to understand is that providing land certainty on disputed territories will usher in massive investment and economic development in Canada's heartland and frontier communities. They do not appreciate that the fastest growing demographic in our country is aboriginal people, where the average age is significantly lower than the general population. Providing education, training, and a healthy environment to these young people is in Canada's overall economic interest. They will fill jobs for which skills are desperately needed. And they can't get their heads around the fact that aboriginal people are proud, spiritual, and strong. They don't want handouts. But we have turned the people of these ancient indigenous cultures into beggars.