By Ken Coates, August 2, 2023
Although Indigenous constitutional, treaty and legal rights are a matter of record, Indigenous policy in Canada remains a matter of continuous and intense debate. The social, economic and cultural challenges and accomplishments of First Nations, Inuit and Metis people are generally well-known but have not yet been addressed properly.
Commenting publicly on developments in this area can attract harsh negative responses. Appearances on talk radio programs often spark particularly nasty reactions, primarily by non-Indigenous listeners who criticize me for being too supportive of Indigenous demands and aspirations.
There are times when the need to respond to commentaries in the media warrant becomes overwhelming. A recent op-ed on the True North website is a case in point.
The provocative article, “Indigenous reparations, underdevelopment, and dysfunction need rethinking” talks about compensation “for alleged injustices.” There is nothing “alleged” about the interventions, discrimination, paternalism, and colonialism embedded in generations of federal Indigenous policy, or the racial discrimination that marked Indigenous-newcomer relations in Canada. These are realities that run through to the present through the effects of multi-generational trauma, which is something the commentary also criticizes.
The article refers to the expenditure of “billions” of dollars as through the spending is somehow inappropriate, referring to the funding as “reparations” with another name. The author correctly points out that a lot of money is being spent, but incorrectly suggests that the expenditures are wrong-headed. Recent tribunal decisions have shown that the amounts spent fall far short of appropriate national standards.
Indigenous people in Canada were treated poorly for generations. They faced countless restrictions and impositions by government, potential employers, and the public at large. There is overwhelming evidence that governments have treated Indigenous peoples inappropriately and often illegally. The recent settlements — the billions that the authors seemingly object to — are direct compensation for acts of government lawlessness, neglect, discrimination, incompetence, or injustice.
The op-ed makes it clear – repeating something Indigenous leaders have said constantly and for decades – that Indigenous socio-economic development lags well behind national norms. It emphasizes poor and disadvantaged settlements but pays no attention to the impressive achievements by many communities. It needs to be said that problems created over a century or more are not solved overnight, and not simply with money being spent by federal, provincial and territorial governments.
The article cites my own ongoing concern that non-Indigenous support for Indigenous program is soft and unreliable in the long-term. I do worry about this, but I am even more concerned that governments believe that money matters more than other elements of resolution, and that governments’ willingness to spend money is not matched by enthusiasm for real change and the empowerment of Indigenous peoples.
The author quotes me as saying that government proceeds “in the absence of understanding what actually works to improve the lives of Indigenous peoples.” I believe this strongly. Long-term solutions rest on listening to Indigenous governments, leaders and peoples. The Indigenous require — and deserve — to have their rights respected without having to constantly prove it in court. Treaties must be respected, implemented, and modernized. Indigenous self-government, properly funded, works much better than federal paternalism. Long-term funding commitments are vastly preferable to annual applications for program funding and constant reporting to Ottawa.
Indigenous peoples need continued and dramatic change, but this is proving much more difficult than getting money out of Ottawa. When she was federal Justice Minister, Jody Wilson-Raybould — one of the most astute and influential Indigenous leaders in Canada — was frustrated by the unwillingness of the her own government, and indeed the country, to embrace real and transformative change. As she recently said, “They – many of the people in positions of power – still do not get it. I have told many stories of sitting around with government colleagues and speaking about the recognition of Indigenous rights and the implementation of treaties and how to make transformative change to support self-determination, including self-government – and it was like I was from a different planet.”
Canada has failed to fulfill its obligations to Indigenous peoples in many ways. The True North article is incorrect in arguing that “there is no grass-roots discussion of the ills of welfare dependency and little about the downside of federal government paternalism” and little interest in reform “from within.” This is simply untrue. Indigenous communities understand their challenges better than government officials, academics, and outside commentators. Considering the staggering challenges inflicted on them over centuries, their collective determination and resilience are remarkable.
Yes, this costs money, and it will cost even more in the future. Most of it pays for the provision of basic services — education, health care, policing, infrastructure, and socio-economic opportunity — that most other Canadians take for granted.
The article does not discuss lousy water systems, poor roads, or the challenges of providing proper education, health care and adequate Internet in rural and remote communities. It also fails to mention the rise of Indigenous entrepreneurship, successful self-governing nations, the profitable Indigenous economic development corporations, and impressive steps in culture expression.
Indigenous peoples, however, remain strong in the face of generations of efforts to suppress their cultures. The compensation agreements that the author focuses on address some of the illegal and unjust acts of the past, ones that undermined families and harmed whole communities. Every negotiated settlement is a belated government recognition that they ignored Canadian law and their responsibility to Indigenous communities.
The article raises impractical ideas — like eliminating Indian status and reserves — that are non-starters at every level. The elements of a better Indigenous future are already in place, if not yet fully realized. Modern treaties, self-government agreements, local economic development cultural institutions, First Nations school boards, colleges, universities and health authorities are only a few of the signs of robust and impressive Indigenous resurgence. Indigenous communities and leaders know the problems only too well; they are building the solutions themselves.
Following the advice of Jody Wilson-Raybould, putting real authority and resources into the hands of Indigenous governments, and being open to dramatic Indigenous-driven changes in the Canadian status quo, is the right way to go forward.
Ken Coates is a Distinguished Fellow and Director of Indigenous Affairs at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute.