This article originally appeared in the Calgary Herald.
By Ken Coates, October 25, 2023
Australia voted down a constitutional amendment on Oct. 14 that would have provided their First Nations with an entry into national politics and governance through The Voice, a parallel representative body intended to provide advice to parliament.
Faced with an opportunity to open governance a crack for Indigenous people, the electorate spoke loudly, voting more than 60 per cent against the proposal. Having dared believe that Australia would open the door to political equality, Aboriginal Australians ended up with the door slammed in their faces.
To be fair, a sizable minority of First Nations people also voted No, primarily because The Voice was a minor concession that would not close the yawning gap between the life conditions of Aboriginal people and other Australians.
It is a long-standing truism of Indigenous affairs that non-Indigenous peoples support Indigenous rights primarily when those rights do not have legal authority. As Indigenous rights gain traction, opposition tends to mount. When The Voice referendum was announced, early polls anticipated an easy victory, indicating approval rates of more than 70 per cent. Support collapsed as the opposition formed a bizarre coalition of ideological opponents: First Nations who wanted more rights, bigots, the uninformed and voters who simply reject the need for Aboriginal rights and empowerment.
Canada experienced a less overt version of the Australian constitutional referendum. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s appointment of Jody Wilson-Raybould as minister of justice heralded a new day in the re-empowerment of Indigenous people in Canada. She was, it seemed, perfectly placed to bring about the major changes that First Nations, Metis and Inuit desired.
The story of Wilson-Raybould’s ill-fated career in cabinet is well-known. Less attention has been paid to the minister’s bold vision to align Canadian policy with meaningful changes in Indigenous policy-making. As minister of justice, also carrying a mandate to align the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples with Canadian law, she was in the ideal job to affect dramatic change.
In shocking circumstances unrelated to Indigenous affairs, Wilson-Raybould was removed from cabinet, sparking intense debate about the prime minister’s ethics and actions. However, a crucial opportunity to advance the cause of Indigenous rights had evaporated.
For Indigenous peoples, the loss was real. The federal government moved forward with its Indigenous plans, settling outstanding claims, expanding program funding, accelerating self-government agreements and making reconciliation the centrepiece of national policy. But the government has stopped far short of the restructuring envisaged by the former minister of justice and many Indigenous leaders. Given the chance to leap forward, as in Australia, Canada opted for limited and cautious approaches.
While symbolism matters — and The Voice would likely have been largely symbolic — there remains a simple truth. Delays in addressing Indigenous rights keep the burdens of past injustices firmly on the backs of Indigenous peoples, punting the difficult decisions to future generations. As a result, they make life more difficult for some of the most disadvantaged members of society.
Aboriginal leaders in Australia showed great courage when they pushed for The Voice. The country will now try to figure out what went wrong with the referendum campaign. A similar process should be underway in Canada, trying to determine how to move past short-term politics to the change that could bring real and sustainable justice for Indigenous peoples.
Non-Indigenous peoples need to get past their largely unspoken fear. Re-empowering Indigenous people and governments does not diminish the nation or undermine the well-being of non-Indigenous residents.
In sharp contrast to the message sent this past weekend in Australia, countries need to find new and creative ways to address Indigenous aspirations and to welcome them into real partnerships.
Surely it is time to stop disappointing Indigenous communities and to ensure a fair and equitable place within society and on their traditional lands.
Ken Coates is a distinguished fellow and director of Indigenous affairs at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute.