A few days ago in Moncton, Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn Atleo spoke about the need to repeal the Indian Act and abolish the Department of Aboriginal Affairs. In the national media, there didn't appear to be much disagreement with his position, which is an understandable reaction when one considers the state of the First Nations relationship with Ottawa and the appalling living conditions on many reserves.
Essentially Atleo took the first step and laid out his vision of the future. Atleo's vision included abolishing the Department of Aboriginal Affairs and replacing it with two smaller entities, one that would support a government to government relationship and the other to provide services to First Nations communities.
The natural tendency of any bureaucracy when ideas such as Atleo's are floated and end up earning major media coverage is to go into defense mode. It would be interesting to know how much time the department, the minister's office and PMO spent working on defensive talk points and looking at what is wrong with Atleo's suggestion as opposed to what are the benefits to both First Nations and the government of his suggestions.
You can see some of that reaction in the response issued from the minister's office which said "Our government is strongly committed to addressing challenges within the Indian Act. We are supporting investments and partnerships to address these, including legislation, based on partnerships and agreements with First Nations, provinces and territories."
In other words, they chose not to respond to Atleo's ideas at this time.
Hopefully this reflects a willingness on the part of the minister and PMO to listen to what Atleo is suggesting and that it is not just a defensive reaction where you put out a holding line while hoping once the media dies down the issue will go away. If that is the department's hope, it is a futile one.
At this point, Atleo will certainly have the attention of key people in government. This is all well and good, but now it's time to begin fleshing out the details and create a detailed road map and a timeline for all to see and evaluate. This is not an easy step, and among the items that will have to be considered will be acceptance of Atleo's vision by First Nations communities, provisions for accountability, a cost analysis and legislative requirements.
At this point though, it's all one sided; we have only been presented with one vision. The First Nations have taken the initiative and presented their vision of the future. Perhaps its time for the government to present its vision too.
Chief Atleo has noted that the Prime Minister has indicated support for a Crown-First Nations Gathering later this year. This would be the perfect opportunity for the government to bring forward its vision. At that point serious discussions can start where both sides are thinking forward and neither is in defense mode. There have been enough studies and commissions; it's time to do some serious talking and get some results.
To quote Chief Atleo: "This is important, but what's more important is that First Nations are going to move forward."
Keith Beardsley's pundit blog can be found at www.atory01.com.