Modern day treaties fundamentally reshaping Canada for the better

"These agreements enable indigenous peoples to begin to rebuild their communities or nations on their own terms,"leading to real reconciliation, according to business executive Clint Davis, consultant Kim Baird and lawyer Jason Madden.

Comprehensive land agreements key to real nation-to-nation relationships with indigenous peoples

Brian Mulroney signs the Nunavut Land Claim Agreement, 1993, with James Eetoolook, Paul Quassa, Titus Allooloo and Tom Siddon looking on. (Nick Newbery)

The Trudeau government has committed to resetting the relationship with First Nations, Métis and Inuit people, and has rightfully made indigenous issues a national priority.

Progress will be slow, but the commitments to implementing the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's 94 recommendations and a national inquiry on missing and murdered indigenous women and girls are steps in the right direction. 

While these developments have created much needed optimism amongst indigenous peoples, creating processes will not be enough: significant financial investments will be required.

The usual critics will say that throwing "taxpayer money" at dysfunctional systems will not fix anything. Those critics, along with many Canadians, however, are often unaware of the success being achieved through modern day treaties. 

Advancing reconciliation 

These comprehensive land claims agreements, which settle long outstanding grievances and provide for real indigenous self-determination, require more understanding, attention and examination as we advance reconciliation in this country.

Since 1975, with the signing of the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement, 26 other modern day treaties have been agreed to between the Crown and indigenous peoples covering nearly 40 per cent of Canada's land mass.

These agreements have provided for indigenous ownership of over 600,000 square kilometres of land, financial transfers of over $3.2 billion, co-management regimes, resource revenue sharing and law-making powers.

It is worth noting that some of these new treaties have been negotiated where treaties already existed as a means to give effect to the original intent of those historic treaties.

This map is for illustration purposes only. (

Real nation-to-nation relationships

These modern day treaties are fundamentally reshaping Canada for the better. We say this because modern treaties and self-government agreements are actually working. These agreements enable indigenous peoples to begin to rebuild their communities or nations on their own terms, with a solid constitutional, legal, economic and governance foundation.

Instead of living under Crown-imposed systems like the Indian Act, modern treaty holders have a vested interest in making their negotiated agreements work.

These agreements also allow for internal reconciliation to occur through better governance systems that increase transparency and rebalance accountability to indigenous citizens — not to officials in Ottawa.   

Equally important, these agreements create real nation-to-nation relationships.They establish effective multilateral arrangements between all levels of government — indigenous, federal, provincial, territorial, and municipal. These types of inter-governmental approaches make sense in a federation like Canada. 

Through these arrangements indigenous governments are given the tools they need in the 21st century, rather than continuing to tinker with the legislative relics of our colonial past. 

Finally, these agreements provide much improved land and economic foundations that will enable indigenous governments to ultimately become self-determining and self-sufficient. 

Rather than continuing to simply manage their own poverty, financial transfer agreements enable groups to identify and spend on their own priorities to meet their citizens' needed. 

Moreover, these agreements include provisions that enable groups to unlock and meaningfully participate in economic opportunities throughout their territories. 

Impact on regional economies

The impact on regional economies has been significant, and has happened in all areas of the country. 

The Tsawwassen First Nation, just outside of Vancouver, is a partner in projects totalling $750 million. The Tłı̨chǫ government, and its businesses, has contributed $450 million to the Northwest Territories' economy over the last decade. Then there is the multi-million dollar revenue growth by Nunatsiavut Group of Companies through aggressive business acquisition in Atlantic Canada. 

These treaties are allowing indigenous governments to become real partners with other governments and industry.

These opportunities demonstrate that indigenous peoples are not opposed to resource development in their territories if they are able to equally benefit and if there are environmental safeguards.

In the relatively short period since 1975, we are already seeing improved outcomes in health and social indicators in modern treaty areas. Recent studies by the C.D. Howe Institute and the Fraser Institute also confirm these agreements are paying off. 

These results stand in stark contrast to other federal policy approaches.

Time to 'double down' on treaties

The answer is simple: Canada must double down on modern day treaty making with interested and willing indigenous peoples. 

With a renewed commitment, combined with necessary changes to currently outdated, ungenerous and legally suspect federal policies, the logjams and delays that have developed over the last decade of indifference to treaty making could begin to be removed. 

Modern treaty making, including the potential use of these templates for historic treaty renewal or for addressing the claims of other indigenous peoples, for those open to such an approach, is how real reconciliation with indigenous peoples will be advanced. 

It is the "real change" indigenous peoples are looking for. 

Kim Baird (Coast Salish) is the former chief of the Tsawwassen First Nation, Clint Davis (Inuit) is the Chair of the Nunatsiavut Group of Companies and Jason Madden (Métis) is managing partner in the law firm Pape Salter Teillet LLP.