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Aboriginal Policy By Ira Basen, CBC.ca Reality Check Team | January 17, 2006 | More Reality Check

Why a University of Calgary professor has some native leaders worried about a Conservative government

In this campaign, like so many others before it, precious little ink has been spilled, and very little airtime consumed, by discussions around aboriginal issues. And yet, very real differences exist between the parties, and aboriginal leaders across Canada are paying particularly close attention to this election for two very important reasons.

The first is that just days before the government fell in November, the federal government, all the provincial and territorial leaders, and the heads of five national aboriginal groups concluded an historic agreement in Kelowna B.C.

The deal, the result of eighteen months of tough negotiations, committed the federal government to spending $5.1 billion over the next five years to help improve native education, housing, health and economic opportunities. The Kelowna accord is strongly supported by the Liberals and the NDP, but native leaders are worried about the Conservative's commitment to the plan. Stephen Harper has said he "supports the principles and objectives" of Kelowna, but he has also said, somewhat ominously, that he would not be bound by the price tag negotiated by the Liberals.

The Prince of Darkness

The second cause for concern for many native leaders is the presence of Tom Flanagan in Stephen Harper's inner circle. Flanagan, a conservative, American-born political science professor at the University of Calgary, is a senior advisor in the Conservative campaign, and is expected to occupy a similar role in a Stephen Harper government. In 2000, he wrote an explosive book called First Nations? Second Thoughts that deftly dissected what he described as the "aboriginal orthodoxy". At the centre of this orthodoxy is the idea that aboriginal people are "nations" with an inherent right to self-government and sovereignty. Though this has been affirmed by the Supreme Court, Flanagan rejects both these propositions. In his view, natives in Canada should more accurately be described as "first immigrants", rather than "First Nations", because in much of Canada, their present place of habitation postdates the arrival of European settlers.

Flanagan is scathing in his criticisms of native political leaders and the "wasteful, destructive, familistic factionalism" of the governments they run. He calls the reserve system "anomalous and dysfunctional", and while he concedes that there is probably no realistic way of getting rid of them, Flanagan thinks the long-term solution to their problems might be to allow them to wither away by cutting off their supply of federal cash. "Governments should help the reserves to run as honestly and efficiently as possible", he argues, "but should not flood them with even more money, which would encourage unsustainable growth in the number of residents."

For Flanagan, the key to future success lies not on the reserves, but in the growing number of native people who by choice or necessity, now live off reserve. Rather than encourage aboriginal people to withdraw into their "First Nations", under their own "self-governments", on their own "traditional lands", within their own "aboriginal economies", governments and aboriginal leaders need to help natives acquire the skills and attitudes that bring success in a liberal market economy. "Call it assimilation, call it integration, call it adaptation, call it anything you want: it has to happen", concludes Flanagan in a statement that would send shivers down the spines of most of Canada's native political leaders.

But not all! Over the weekend, the Conservatives received the endorsement of the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples, an organization that sees itself as the representative of the over 800,000 off-reserve Indian, Inuit, and Métis people scattered across Canada.. All of these people, according to CAP, share common problems of exclusion from the programs supported by CAP's main rival, the Assembly of First Nations, designed primarily for reserves.

The Kelowna Agreement, which was endorsed by CAP, was vague on exactly how the $5.1 billion would be distributed. Congress leaders hope Harper shares Tom Flanagan's disdain for the reserve system and the people who run them. They are thinking that when Harper does get around to handing out some money, off-reserve natives will fare better than they would under a Liberal government under the sway of AFN chief Phil Fontaine. And indeed, in a letter written by Stephen Harper to the Congress leadership on January 10, the Conservative leader spoke of a need for a "realignment" of federal funds "to include appropriate and adequate distribution of resources in order to accommodate the needs of off-reserve and non-status Indians."

The Other Prince of Darkness

But Tom Flanagan is hardly the first Canadian to take a stab at radically rethinking the relationship between the federal government and Canada's native people. In 1969, the government of Pierre Trudeau proposed abolishing the Indian Act and the federal department that administered it, shutting down the reserves, and essentially turning the job of looking after Canada's native people over to the provinces. Like Flanagan, Trudeau, and his young Indian Affairs Minister Jean Chrétien, had no use for concepts like aboriginal sovereignty and native self-government. Canada was one nation, and it would have only one sovereign government.

Trudeau's plan ultimately collapsed in the face of overwhelming resistance from native leaders, and Trudeau later came around to supporting native self-government. Today, the intellectual legacy of the young Pierre Trudeau can be found not amongst his fellow Liberals, but in the writings of Tom Flanagan. In addition to calling for more support for non-status and off-reserve natives, the Conservative platform demands greater accountability for federal money spent on reserves, and improved standards of governance for elected native leaders. These were ideas championed by Jean Chrétien in 2002 when he introduced The First Nations Governance Act. But many native leaders viewed the proposals as unwelcome intrusions into their jurisdiction, and the plan was dropped by Paul Martin shortly after he became Prime Minister. The Conservative plan also appears to open the door for a voucher system for native parents who will receive compensation if they choose to send their children to non-native schools off the reserve.

If Tom Flanagan gets his way, a Conservative victory could well lead to fundamental changes in the relationship between the federal government and aboriginal people, changes almost as revolutionary as those proposed by Pierre Trudeau more than three decades ago. There are obstacles in the way. The man who has been the Conservative critic on Indian Affairs, Jim Prentice, is said to be not too keen on Flanagan's ideas, and opposition amongst native leaders will be fierce. But if you want to know what the future for native Canadians might look like, First Nations? Second Thoughts would be a good place to start.

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