By Ken Coates, MLI’s Senior Fellow in Aboriginal and Northern Canadian Issues
Chief Therese Spence’s protest and the Idle No More movement re-enforce a simple and clear message: First Nations people are frustrated with the status quo. Their preoccupation with meetings with the Prime Minister and additional government policy and action, however, represents only a small portion of what needs to be done to put First Nations’ affairs in Canada on a more positive and optimistic agenda. Above all, First Nations need greater engagement with and support from the non-Aboriginal people in Canada.
On this account, the events of the past month are more troubling than helpful. The general reaction to Chief Spence’s protest and Idle No More, gauged from comments on blogs, call-in programs and in general conversation, is sharply negative, often hostile and occasionally racist. Only small numbers of non-Aboriginal people have joined the actual protests, and most of them were individuals and organizations whose support for Indigenous rights is already well known. The flash mob strategy used by Idle No More, peaceful demonstrations announced in advance, far from attracting them, is having the interesting result of keeping people away.
There are, however, reasons for optimism, embodied in the work and zeal of two individuals. The Honorable Paul Martin, former prime minister and perhaps the best finance minister in Canadian history, is well regarded for a high profile life of public service. Fewer Canadians understand his complete devotion to improving conditions for First Nations people, a passion embedded in the ambitious Kelowna Accord that marked his time as Prime Minister and that has accompanied him into retirement.
Long before Chief Spence’s protests brought Attawapiskat back into the news, Mr. Martin was working tireless on numerous fronts, promoting Aboriginal economic development, encouraging business leaders to engage more constructively with First Nations communities and advocating for greater participation of non-Aboriginal peoples in the challenge of reconciliation. No one who has spoken to Mr. Martin about these issues can doubt his sincerity and determination. A much smaller number appreciate his continuing efforts to build off current political and legal foundations and create economic and social opportunities for First Nations peoples and communities.
Aditya Jha, a prominent Indo-Canadian business leader, philanthropist and recent inductee into the Order of Canada, is less well known to most Canadians. Well before the current conflicts, and deeply troubled by the poverty and despair he encountered in First Nations communities. Mr. Jha established a private foundation devoted to improving business opportunities for Aboriginals. Among his most innovative initiatives was a campaign to match promising First Nations youth to prominent business leaders, supporting a job shadowing program that introduced the Aboriginal students to the reality of modern business. His hard-driving style – Mr. Jha expected a lot from the young people who participate in his programs – is precisely the mix of support, encouragement and high expectations that youth, Aboriginal or otherwise, need to rise to the challenges of our time.
Canada needs action on First Nations issues, but not a perpetuation of the status quo or an extension of existing programs. As National Chief Shawn Atleo of the Assembly of First Nations says, Canadians need to rediscover the spirit of the treaties and the promises of partnership imbedded in our historic relationships with First Nations peoples. But the current preoccupation with the Government of Canada “doing something” about First Nations issues is more than ironic given the legacy of misdeeds and ineffective government policy over the generations.
Canada needs reconciliation, not a new program, an infusion of cash or a new policy framework, important as each of these might well become in the future. The country needs non-Aboriginal Canadians to take more responsibility for the relationship with First Nations. We need business leaders to build on the promising and impressive joint ventures and existing collaborations with First Nations communities. We need, furthermore, greater recognition of the fact that there are many First Nations people and communities that have leapfrogged despair and protest toward action and opportunity. Their stories, along with the impressive contributions of Paul Martin, Aditya Jha and others like them, should inspire all Canadians about the promise of tomorrow. Attawapiskat and communities like it are real and their people need help. But they do not define the Aboriginal trajectory in Canada.
At its best, public policy should be a foundation on which a people define, build and live in their country. The Government requires a firm signal from all Canadians, and not just First Nations, that addressing intelligently the poverty, despair and hardship in Indigenous communities is a national priority. Their policies must be designed to motivate and inspire all Canadians to make reconciliation with Aboriginal peoples a Canada-wide movement.
Paul Martin and Aditya Jha, two among many, represent the present and future of non-Aboriginal engagement with First Nations people. Their personal commitment to work with First Nations, to listen to their concerns and to work toward constructive solutions is precisely the response that Canada needs if substantial and sustainable reconciliation is ever going to be possible.
Ken Coates, Canada Research Chair in Regional Innovation at the University of Saskatchewan, is co-leader of the Aboriginal Canada and the Natural Resource Economy project at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute (www.macdonaldlaurier.ca), an independent public policy think tank in Ottawa.