Aboriginal Policy: Two Priorities

By Richards, John | Inroads, Summer 2006 | Go to article overview

Aboriginal Policy: Two Priorities


Richards, John, Inroads


FOR CENTURIES, WHITE SETTLERS ADOPTED a sense of racial superiority to Aboriginals. At some point in the 1970s - after Pierre Trudeau's 1969 White Paper and before entrenchment of treaty rights in the 1982 constitution - Canadians repented. Since then, majority attitudes have been suffused with "white guilt." Four decades after Trudeau's White Paper, a small Aboriginal elite now exists, and much of its discourse is angry. Relations between Aboriginals and non-Aboriginals have much in common with black-white relations in the United States. In both cases, the sins of the past haunt the present, and in both cases, the combination of majority guilt and minority anger is not a basis for good policy.

In a lengthy open letter written during the election campaign to Dwight Dorey - at the time head of the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples - Stephen Harper laid out his intentions for Aboriginal policy. It was a potentially significant gesture, largely ignored by the media. "The fundamental obligation of a Conservative federal government," he wrote, "would be to improve the living conditions and educational and economic opportunity of all Aboriginal Canadians including off-reserve, urban and non-status Indian and Métis." The letter made the case for ambitious programs to improve education and employment outcomes for Aboriginals, wherever they are living.

Skeptics can argue that Harper was merely making an electoral appeal to Dorey's supporters (non-status Aboriginals living off-reserve) and that he has no intention to make of Aboriginal concerns a "fundamental obligation." The skeptics may be right; it is too soon to know. Whatever Harper's government does or does not accomplish, the letter contains a good deal of common sense.

Under Paul Martin, federal Aboriginal policy hewed closely to the goals of the 600 band chiefs, as articulated by the Assembly of First Nations (AFN). For example, the first ministers and Aboriginal leaders met in Kelowna last November and promised that the Aboriginal high school completion rate would, by 2016, equal the rate for non-Aboriginals. A noble goal, but virtually all the promised new money went on-reserve: more than $1 billion on-reserve; $150 million off-reserve.

This overwhelming on-reserve emphasis does not make sense. Of the one million Canadians who identified as Aboriginal in the 2001 census, slightly over six in ten identified as Indian - as opposed to Métis or Inuit - but of these six, half lived off-reserve. Once we include Métis and Inuit, seven in ten Aboriginals lived off-reserve; five in ten in a city. Despite facing elements of racial prejudice, off-reserve Aboriginals have significantly higher employment rates, incomes and education levels than do those on-reserve. The future for most - not all, but most - Aboriginals is not on a reserve; as is the case for other Canadians, their future is in Canadian towns and cities, as neighbours to non-Aboriginals.

I see two fundamental priorities that need to be established if Aboriginal policy is to work. Harpers letter raises the first of these, namely accountability.

PRIORITY ONE: Aboriginals are receiving services from three orders of governments - federal, provincial and band-based. All three orders must become more accountable for results.

Consider K-12 schooling. If the next generation of Aboriginals is to succeed, a precondition is belter education. At present, neither band councils nor the provinces nor Ottawa - with a few honourable exceptions - are measuring school performance. In repeated reports, the Auditor General has criticized the Department of Indian Affairs for transferring money to bands for schools while making no effort to monitor school performance.

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