By John Ibbitson, Globe and Mail, June 9, 2011
Ottawa and first nations leaders, who historically have been antagonists more often than partners, will create panels with three major mandates: to put sound education programs in place in native schools, to eliminate obstacles to creating jobs for on-reserve Indians, and to improve the governance of reserves.
They will also continue negotiating land-claim and self-government agreements.
Such unheard-of co-operation between government and native leaders signals a major shift in both leadership and attitudes, Aboriginal and Northern Affairs Minister John Duncan said Wednesday.
“There is a huge generational change” under way within the Indian community, Mr. Duncan said. Where previous negotiations with native leaders focused primarily on treaty rights and self-government, today’s leadership “is really heading toward economic development, education and good government in a major way,” he said.
The reforms will focus on status Indians living on reserve, as opposed to off-reserve and other aboriginal communities.
The two sides have already been working together for several months on education reform, and Mr. Duncan said recommendations on that front should be ready by October, in time for implementation within the 2012 federal budget. Although funding for the department is protected from the Conservatives’ planned spending cuts, there is no indication from the government that additional education funds will be available.
Panels looking at obstacles to economic growth on reserves and ways to improve the quality of band governance will also be given targeted mandates, he said, although the work will be ongoing with less emphasis on deadlines.
Mr. Atleo said co-operating with Ottawa on improving standards on reserves need not come at the expense of asserting native jurisdiction.
“First nations can do both,” he said. “We can stand firmly in our rights, but we can also accomplish success in education that will light the fire of potential in our young people.”
Nonetheless, overcoming the distrust of the federal government among native leaders will be no easy task, he acknowledged.
“For certain, there’s going to be a sense of fear from many about engaging so directly,” he said. Yet such engagement represented the best tradition of relations between first nations and the national government, he maintained.
Historically, the relationship between the chiefs and Ottawa has been characterized by grievance and obstruction, with endless negotiations over land claims and self-governance enriching mostly lawyers.
But a combination of factors appears to be shifting the debate in a different direction. One was the apology and compensation offered by the federal government in recognition of the abuses in the residential school system. Another was the Harper government’s decision to endorse the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
This space is not normally dedicataed to support and praise for the Harper government. However, if there is truly a new attitude of cooperation and collaboration between Ottawa and First Nations people, then both sides need full commendation. The issue of improving the conditions for status, reserve First Nations people, has been a running and open wound in the Canadian culture and history for far too long.
Let's not get too far ahead of ourselves here. This is, after all, a new government trying to put the best face on the developments. And the source is one generally favourable and supportive to the Conservative government. So there is reason for a dash of scepticism/salt in our expression of confidence that these initial moves will be fully consummated in the final agreements.
Canadians from all regions and provinces will be watching with interest, what details emerge in the final agreements, looking for an atmosphere of sustained trust, sustained appreciation for the on-the-ground facts of broken promises, shattered dreams and eroded trust between First Nations people and the people of Canada as represented by their government.