Native voices on the pressure to fix Canada's oldest relationship

Four prominent aboriginals discuss whether the Idle No More movement and Friday's meeting between First Nations leaders and the federal govenrment have the potential to repair the damaged 500-year-old relationship between First Nations and the rest of Canada.

A round table discussion with prominent aboriginals on the impact of Idle No More

Four-year-old Lily Mervyn, the daughter of Métis and Cherokee parents, attends an Idle No More demonstration at the Douglas-Peace Arch near Surrey, B.C., on Jan. 5, 2013. Educated, internet-savvy youth who have been empowered by the Idle No More movement are First Nations' best hope of improving their circumstances, say aboriginal leaders (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

As Assembly of First Nations national chief Shawn Atleo and other aboriginal leaders prepare for their Friday meeting with Prime Minister Stephen Harper, they must surely be feeling the heavy weight of pressure to produce results. The national spotlight is, for a time again, focused on native issues, and there's an opportunity to "reset" the difficult conversation between aboriginals and the rest of Canada.

It's no easy task. The grassroots movement Idle No More nips at the AFN's heels, threatening to make it irrelevant. On Victoria Island, across from Parliament Hill, sits Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence, drawing much of the media attention to her two-month-old hunger strike and, more recently, to the reports about irregularities in the financial management of her northern Ontario reserve.

And yet, the opportunity is there for more than just a photo-op on Friday and for some kind of gesture toward a new relationship between the government and First Nations.

With this in mind, we asked two leading aboriginal scholars, a former chief and a young aboriginal filmmaker to reflect on the upcoming meeting and what, if anything, can be achieved to fix the damaged 500-year-old relationship between the one and a half million aboriginal peoples and the rest of Canada.

  • Taiaiake Alfred is a Mohawk from Kahnawake and a professor at the University of Victoria.
  • Sonia Bonspille Boileau is a Mohawk filmmaker based in Gatineau, Que. 
  • John Borrows is an internationally recognized constitutional scholar at the University of Minnesota and an Anishinabe from Ontario.
  • Clarence T. (Manny) Jules is the chairman of the First Nations Tax Commission and formerly the chief of the Kamloops Indian Band in B.C. He is a proponent of privatization of reserve lands.

CBC: Shawn Atleo has described the Idle No More protests as a 'tipping point.' How would you characterize the state of the relationship between aboriginal peoples and the rest of Canada on the eve of the Friday meeting?

John Borrows is a constitutional scholar who is Anishinabe/Ojibway in origin and a member of the Chippewa of the Nawash First Nation in Ontario. He currently teaches at the University of Minnesota. (University of Minnesota )

John Borrows: Aboriginal peoples' lives are drastically shorter than other Canadians and marked by more suffering as measured by considerably higher rates of poverty, injury and incarceration and significantly lower levels of education, income and health. 

This did not occur in an instant. We have long passed the 'tipping point' in the relationship between aboriginal peoples and others. We are in crisis mode, and there is no politically driven prospect of salvaging the relationship. It is already broken and lies in ruins all around us.   

Sonia Boileau: There has to be tangible and significant social change in this country or all hell is going to break loose. First Nations peoples have been patient, with empty promises of a new relationship, but patience has its limits.   

What does Idle No More signify in terms of the Aboriginal protest movement?

'People are beginning to see that "native rights" are a potentially powerful force in standing against the Conservative agenda of destroying the land and water.'— Taiaiake Alfred, University of Victoria professor

Taiaiake Alfred: Many indigenous people and Canadians have come to realize that they share passions and commitments to things such as protecting the environment and social justice. People are beginning to see that 'native rights' are a potentially powerful force in standing against the Conservative agenda of destroying the land and water, selling off the country's resources and degrading whatever democracy, fairness and justice that does exist in Canada. 

Is there a radicalization happening? 

Borrows: Aboriginal peoples are living through a period of profound, extended, multi-generational trauma, and this issue only comes to the attention of most Canadians every few years. 

Though aboriginal activism does not often rise to the level of national news, aboriginal peoples have long taken steps of resistance to protect their lands, languages and resources, even while others within their midst silently succumb to the despair spawned by the overwhelming challenge of finding success in these endeavors. 

Sonia Bonspille Boileau is a Mohawk filmmaker based in Gatineau, Que. (CBC)

Boileau: More and more aboriginal people are informed — with access to internet and social media — and educated. This helps this activism. People who are speaking out know what they are talking about and know that there is a good reason to be doing this. 

Manny Jules: Our demographic situation cannot be overstated. One in 10 new labour force entrants over the next 15 years is going to be aboriginal. And this is happening as the number of retired Canadians is rising the fastest. This means that Canadian retirees are going to be increasingly dependent on the productivity of aboriginal workers. Our poverty is not just our issue; it is an issue for the sustainability of Canadian social programs. It is very important at this point in history for Canada to bring us into the economy and federation.

The omnibus bill was the catalyst for the Idle No More protests. A flashpoint is the protection of ancestral land and the resources on it. And this, in turn, is linked to unresolved treaty issues that are incredibly complex. How does the federal government address this behemoth?

Alfred: The answers are already there. The recommendations of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, put forward in 1996, offer a comprehensive 20-year agenda for change. The report was extensively researched by the best minds in the country, thoroughly debated by representatives of all political perspectives and expertly planned and costed-out. Canadians paid $58 million for all those answers! Why wouldn't we use them as at least a starting point?

Jules: First Nations need to be able to make their own choices about their future. We are proposing that we be provided with the same property rights available to every other person in Canada, supported by the same property rights system as exists in every province in Canada. Property rights will provide a method to provide opportunity and increased wealth for our members, give them access to capital and reduce poverty.

Another big issue is the Indian Act. It's one of Canada's oldest pieces of legislation. Many want to scrap it. How should this be tackled? 

Taiaiake Alfred is a Mohawk from Kahnawake who teaches at the University of Victoria. (Taiaiake Alfred)

Jules: I led the first Indian-led amendment to the Indian Act in 1988. Since that time, other First Nations have led amendments to the Indian Act and a formula has emerged for making changes. First, it has to be First Nation led. Second, it has to be optional. Third, you have to establish First Nation institutions that can support First Nations that want to opt out of the Indian Act. Finally, you need governmental political will.

Borrows: The policy proposal most frequently vetted in Parliament and in national news editorials ... is characterized by ideas which advocate liquidating reserves, dismantling distinctive indigenous-run governments and educating "Indians" to participate in the broader society.

No government has seriously proposed any other approach to dealing with aboriginal issues, even in the present day. This policy has failed miserably, but in the coming months, it will likely be dressed up in new clothes and once again advanced as the solution to aboriginal issues. 

Alfred: The Indian Act must be replaced by legislation that reflects the nation-to-nation and treaty relationships Canada has with various indigenous nations. 

The crucially important thing is this: band councils are not our governments and must be abandoned in favour of the restoration or regeneration of our traditional forms of government.

A stated purpose of Friday's meeting is to talk about treaty rights. There are dozens of outstanding land claims. Treaty rights are a vast subject. What will be the AFN's objective on that issue?

Clarence T. (Manny) Jules is the chairman of the First Nations Tax Commission and was the chief of the Kamloops Indian Band in B.C. from 1984 to 2000. (Courtesy of First Nations Tax Commision)

Alfred: It's not likely in the space of such a short timeframe that any consensus will emerge on such a broad and divisive subject. There is serious division in the AFN between the First Nations negotiating treaties presently — the numbered treaty people and the pre-Confederation treaty nations — and it's not likely that those factions are going to come together to represent a unified position.

Some say Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government has made efforts to improve the relationship, with the apology for abuses in the residential school system and last year's Crown-First Nations meeting. Others feel the efforts are inadequate. Under Paul Martin's Liberal government, there was the Kelowna Accord, which envisioned broad funding for education and social welfare policies. What is your assessment of the Harper government's efforts?

Borrows: There has been very little to praise or celebrate under any political party's approach to aboriginal issues. While less culpable, the same can be said for how most Indian Act bands and organizations have also approached the relationship. This is why people are marching in the streets. We are in deep trouble as a nation because of our collective failure through many generations. 

The population of aboriginal youth is fast growing. What can we expect from this generation in the years ahead? 

Boileau: We are educated; we are informed. An educated indigenous person is much stronger and much more dangerous for governments than an armed indigenous person. We are now using our knowledge as well as social media to be heard rather than turning to violence. It used to be easy to brush First Nations aside since we didn't have the means to push back.

Now, thanks to social media, information travels faster, and more people are aware of the situation. And this goes beyond First Nations. I've never seen so many non-aboriginal people understand an aboriginal movement, understand and approve of it. Transparency is the key here. It is the key to our future. Maybe that's the actual tipping point. And youth is to thank for that. 


Jennifer Clibbon is a radio producer with CBC Syndication. She began living and working in Russia as a freelance journalist in 1985 and was the news producer in the CBC's Moscow bureau from 2000 to 2003.