06/08/2016 10:53 EDT | Updated 06/09/2017 05:12 EDT

Indigenous-Led Innovation Can Help Build A Better Canada

Ignacio Palacios via Getty Images
Canadian Rockies and Canadian flag in the Rocky mountains. Drive from Banff to Jasper near Calgary, Alberta, Canada.

How can the Canadian government and economy benefit from improved relationships with the First Nations, Inuit and Métis? Should we aim just for better integration and inclusion of Indigenous peoples into Canadian society, or is there a higher goal we can achieve?

These questions have become more pressing now as the Trudeau administration seeks to build a path towards "true reconciliation," increase innovation domestically and improve its image internationally. Through my courses in human rights and social change, and my research on sustainable development, I found that Bolivia -- yes, the small, poor, landlocked, South American nation -- can offer some valuable insights for Canada.

The current Canadian government has set as a top priority the improvement of its relationship with the country's indigenous peoples. And, with increased funding for First Nations and the signing of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, it seems that the new administration is trying to walk the walk. However, even though these are steps forward, we need to work towards the inclusion of indigenous peoples in decision-making, governing and policy-making.

This would not only place Canada as a leader in regard to indigenous rights, but could also lead to social innovation and economic growth.

The road to true reconciliation requires a framework in which indigenous Canadians can cultivate and distill their own ideas in concrete projects that could benefit everyone.

As Trudeau believes in positive politics, using an asset model -- building on strengths rather than fixing weaknesses -- could provide opportunities for indigenous Canadians to harness their ideas and create innovative and efficient initiatives. Let's be clear though, including an indigenous person in the cabinet is not enough. The road to true reconciliation requires a framework in which indigenous Canadians can cultivate and distill their own ideas in concrete projects that could benefit everyone.

The inclusion of indigenous peoples in policy-making and development in Bolivia under the Morales administration has led to positive outcomes. Even though Evo Morales, the first indigenous president of Bolivia, has faced criticism for his leftist and populist rhetoric, some of the policies enacted under his administration present an intriguing case study for Canada. Of particular interest is how facilitating the inclusion of indigenous peoples in governance and policy-making contributed to the new Constitution, the growth of the economy, and successful policies for the production of coca.

Being an Aymara -- one of Bolivia's indigenous groups -- and a cocalero (coca-leaf grower), Morales was elected in 2006 based on the promise of improving the lives of indigenous peoples, who constitute 40 to 62 per cent of the country's population, but had traditionally been excluded from public offices.

Morales first began to grow in popularity during the Water War of 1999, where he was a leading figure defending human rights. After securing access to water, the movement continued to grow, working towards Pachakuti, the indigenous Andean idea of bringing the inside out to effect fundamental change. This collaboration of professionals, environmentalists and workers for access to water set the foundations for the inclusion of Indigenous ideas in economic and social development.

The 2009 constitution defines Bolivia as a unitary, plurinational and secular state. It recognizes the rights of 36 indigenous nations and Afro-Bolivians and their languages, symbols, land rights and political systems. Bolivia's recognition of indigenous rights is the most progressive among Latin American constitutions, extending to other disadvantaged groups, such as women, elders and the disabled.

Developed with significant involvement from the indigenous peoples, the constitution provides that the Bolivian State shall protect the production of the coca leaf. More specifically, the "native and ancestral coca" shall be protected as cultural patrimony, as a "renewable natural resource of Bolivia's biodiversity, and as a factor of social cohesion."

This policy change, initiated and supported by the indigenous coca leaf growers, was an act of legalization and not simply decriminalization: its production and commercialization would be regulated by the state. Since 2009, the Bolivian government has allowed coca farmers to grow a small amount of leaves legally, as they are a significant part of Andean culture and chewed by farmers and miners to boost energy. This approach allows farmers to earn a subsistence wage and helps cut down on the replanting of coca.

Morales has repeatedly called for the international legalization of the coca leaf and has been heavily criticized by foreign governments arguing that legalization would increase supply of the leaves and, in turn, drug trafficking. Their beliefs have proven to be flawed: in the past few years, coca cultivation has been falling in Bolivia. The UN Office on Drugs and Crime reported that the country's area used to grow coca leaf decreased by more than a third between 2010 and 2014 and total coca cultivation in Bolivia fell 11 per cent during 2014. In contrast, Colombia -- which, along with Peru, is the other major coca producer in Latin America, and where coca production is not legalized -- saw coca leaf production rise 44 per cent in 2014 from a year earlier. Bolivia has since been viewed internationally as an example for the unsuccessful militaristic war on drugs in Latin America.

After the constitutional changes, Bolivian indigenous peoples have continued to be involved in policy-making, resulting in successful social and economic programs. Additionally, according to the Economic Commission on Latin America and the Caribbean, Bolivia has been one of the few countries in the region that have reduced inequality during this time. Ten years after Morales' first election, both its indigenous peoples and institutions such as the World Bank agree on the Bolivian model of development. Could that inspire a real change in Canada?

Even though Bolivia, as a country and society, is in many ways different from Canada, the principle of including indigenous ideas in policy-making and governing remains valuable. As we take pride in our diversity and innovative ideas, why keep neglecting such a large asset of our society? Instead of aiming simply to improve indigenous peoples' relationship with the state, let's cultivate innovation for economic and social development and benefit the whole country.

As we move further into the knowledge-based economy, human resources are becoming ever more important. In creating a more prosperous Canada, we need every part of our society contributing to better governance, including indigenous Canadians.

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