Justice and Reconciliation for Indigenous Peoples of Canada

Justice and Reconciliation for Indigenous Peoples of Canada

GPC 2015 platform background paper

As the Truth and Reconciliation Commission so clearly and eloquently sets out, a full recognition and address of the lingering, multigenerational effects of colonialism, paternalism, racism and cultural genocide are the only basis for real reconciliation and partnership.  Based on truth, Canada has a chance for a renewed relationship with Indigenous peoples, whether rural or urban, and a real chance to build a country together.  Only a shared recognition of the history and impact of Canada’s shameful aboriginal policies affecting First Nations, Métis, urban Aboriginal people and Inuit, will support the extraordinary commitment required to right historical wrongs. Canada must support the healing of inter-generational trauma with a commitment to a National Healing Strategy developed in partnership with Indigenous peoples.

Canada should accept the bold proposal from Indigenous leaders to abolish the Indian Act. Like other governments in Canada, the governing bodies of First Nations must be responsible to their own people, not to a federal cabinet minister. The new framework for self-government to be negotiated should reduce bureaucracy and fragmentation, and increase accountability between governments and their electors.  In the meantime, Ottawa should act immediately to raise the unacceptable standards of living of too many Indigenous peoples, including the majority who now live in urban centres. We should start with practical measures to improve health care and education, and to address the treatment of Indigenous peoples in the Canadian justice system.  We must also immediately launch a full inquiry into missing and murdered Aboriginal women.

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As the Truth and Reconciliation Commission so clearly and eloquently sets out, a full recognition and address of the lingering, multigenerational effects of colonialism, paternalism, racism and cultural genocide are the only basis for real reconciliation and partnership.  Based on truth, Canada has a chance for a renewed relationship with Indigenous peoples, whether rural or urban, and a real chance to build a country together.  Only a shared recognition of the history and impact of Canada’s shameful aboriginal policies affecting First Nations, Métis, urban Aboriginal people and Inuit, will support the extraordinary commitment required to right historical wrongs. Canada must support the healing of inter-generational trauma with a commitment to a National Healing Strategy developed in partnership with Indigenous peoples.

The Green Party supports a speedy move to implement the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and will work with Indigenous nations to build a framework for consultation in accordance with the principles within UNDRIP.

The fact that the plight of Indigenous peoples still has to be singled out for special attention in the early 21st century should outrage all Canadians. How is it that we have been unable to move beyond intermittent bursts of anger about disgraceful living conditions and unfairly limited opportunities towards engineering real change?

Federal expenditures on Indigenous education are less than adequate. Health care is substandard, housing conditions have worsened, incarceration and suicide rates are tragically high; on First Nations’ reserves, nearly 40% of water systems are substandard. Many First Nations’ communities are on virtually permanent “boil water” advisories. We know all this, yet we are mired in old thinking that leads us nowhere.

First Nations exercised their own governance for millennia before European contact.  Their lives are now controlled by the federal Indian Act that dates back to 1876 and at one time served as a model for South Africa’s system of apartheid. Apartheid has come and gone, yet the Indian Act remains. The proposal of Indigenous leaders to do away with this dysfunctional, indeed racist, legislative framework is challenging, but it is an invitation we should welcome.

A new governance system is needed to reestablish vital connections/relationships between people and their own governments.  This would make band councils responsible primarily to their citizens, rather than to the federal Minister of Aboriginal and Northern Affairs. Indigenous communities would establish new governance entities, including broader “national governments” encompassing multiple reserves with national commonalities. New electoral processes would ensure fair elections to maximize public confidence and result in representative democracies and trust in Indigenous leadership and governance.  Communities would assume responsibility for the long-term management of local economies and the efficient and effective delivery of services to their people.

Comprehensive land claims agreements (our modern equivalent of the treaties signed since the 17th century) have begun to build new governance arrangements into accords on territorial title and access to resources.  First Nations’ title is now clearly enunciated in the Tsilhqot’in decision of the Supreme Court of Canada in June 2014. Chief Justice Beverly McLachlin, writing for the Court, stated clearly that First Nations do not “have merely a right of first refusal with respect to Crown land management or usage plans.  Rather, it is a right to proactively use and manage the land.” Title is collective and intergenerational.  This exciting decision opens up the path to general reconciliation and shared commitments to sustainability.

The agreements are templates that must be updated and adjusted to comply with the legal realities in Canada and international law. We need to commit to an ambitious, results-oriented treaty-making process. No one is well served by the historically glacial pace of negotiations which is unfair to Indigenous peoples and also creates immense uncertainty on issues such as resource development. In fact, only 26 modern-day treaties have been reached since 1973.  The federal government needs to show that it is determined to deal fairly with Indigenous peoples, whether on basic issues of jurisdiction, governance structures, rights and obligations, or on broader issues such as resource-sharing.

Repealing the Indian Act is an essential first step in dismantling a racist and outdated government policy, but it will also require establishing a comprehensive framework to provide consistency in the structures and operations of First Nations’ governance. Too much internal fragmentation would undermine the collective effectiveness of First Nations’ governments in justifying the extensive investments required to bring the standard of living of First Nations’ peoples to acceptable levels. This type of framework cannot be imposed. It must be established through negotiation as a watershed national treaty between the government of Canada and all First Nations. It would signal a new dedication to respecting First Nations’ autonomy and to renewing the Silver Covenant Chain that has symbolized our commitment to each other for centuries.[1]

It is important in this process that we reduce the amount of red tape that currently ties up dealings between bands and federal bureaucrats, obscuring accountability. New financing arrangements with First Nations should be open and accountable, based on recommendations by an impartial Canadian Commission on Fiscal Transfers [link B].

For Indigenous self-government to be achievable and sustainable, we also have to take capacity-building in First Nations’ communities seriously. After almost 150 years under the Indian Act, the governance traditions of many of these communities have been seriously degraded. Rebuilding them would require participation from both government and civil society.  Sadly, the present federal government undermined Aboriginal civil society quietly but significantly in the 2012 Budget. Federal elimination of funds forced the First Nations Statistical Institute and the National Aboriginal Health Organization to close their doors. The Assembly of First Nations (AFN), the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, and the Native Women’s Association of Canada were left no choice but to curtail many of their essential activities including, of all things, health promotion. Slashing these funds was stunningly retrograde behaviour on the part of the federal government, and it has only increased the profound challenges that must be overcome.

The structural changes supported by Indigenous leaders will be broad, sweeping, and historic. However, they should not distract us from the daily hardships faced by Indigenous peoples that demand immediate remedy. A particular focus must be on improving education, housing, and health care outcomes in their communities.

As well, while the federal government maintains a unique constitutional relationship with First Nations, it also has responsibilities to all Indigenous peoples, including non-registered First Nation peoples, Métis, urban Aboriginal people, and Inuit – responsibilities that it has all too often failed to discharge. The time is overdue for the federal government to step forward and firmly take the lead on improving the quality of living of all Indigenous peoples, but that’s not a task it can accomplish alone. All levels of government must be involved in a coherent and coordinated way.  This is precisely the role the proposed Council of Canadian Governments would play [link R].  As Chair of the Council of Canadian Governments, the Prime Minister should pursue, on a priority basis, the creation of a set of ambitious development goals that all Canadian governments will commit to achieving.  These objectives would range from a plan of action for establishing self-governance to specific development initiatives to assist urban Aboriginal people. The success of such far-reaching changes would also require Indigenous leaders to work together to ensure they have strong and inclusive representation at the meetings of the Council of Canadian Governments.

Canada’s current paternalistic relationship with Indigenous peoples is dysfunctional and corrosive. Fixing it begins with governance. The federal government has proven unable to act effectively as the universal provider of services to remote communities across the country. If we refuse to depart from old responses to the social and economic pathologies afflicting Indigenous peoples, the tragedy will continue to unfold, and we will continue to see little return on dollars spent.

The Green Party believes we need a fresh beginning. That means an end to the Indian Act. It means a coordinated strategy to address the needs of non-registered Aboriginal people.  It means a comprehensive plan of action to establish finally a respectful partnership with Indigenous nations. It means practical measures to improve health care and education, and to address the treatment of Indigenous peoples in the Canadian justice systemIt means an immediate launch of a full inquiry into missing and murdered Aboriginal women. We are committed to rebuilding the relationships based on mutual recognition, mutual respect, sharing and mutual responsibility.


[1] The Silver Covenant Chain was a set of foundational treaties between the British Crown and First Nations. It was first established in the late 17th century and made clear that First Nations were not subjects of the Crown, but friends and allies.