The Treatment of Canada’s Aboriginal Peoples: A Glaring Social Issue

james tannerEssays

Dear Friends:

This is the third essay written the summer of 2015, after the NDP won the Alberta Provincial Election.

Canada’s most glaring social issue is the historical and current treatment of Aboriginal Peoples. Statistically, they populate unacceptably large percentages of our incarcerated, abused, unemployed and poverty stricken and this is no coincidence. It stems from years of neglect and exploitation, racism and greed. But more recently there has been hope on the horizon partially because of the resilience of our Aboriginal Peoples but since 1982 and the inclusion of Section 35 into the Canadian Constitution Canadian Aboriginal Peoples have been able to appeal to the Courts in an unprecedented way.

Seventeen years ago when I was choosing a new direction, I chose to get involved working in Aboriginal communities. It was clear to me that a rebuilding, a revitalization and rekindling of their cultures was key to restitution and so I was fortunate enough to be accepted into some communities to help them work preparing traditional land use studies, which records their traditional livelihood, their cultural standards and their spiritual histories. Through these studies I got involved in valuing losses due to industrial infringements, land claims and agricultural and economic development claims. I continue to work in the same areas today in Alberta, Saskatchewan, Ontario and BC in the context of oil sands, hydroelectric dams, refineries, commercial and residential developments, train derailments, oil and gas pipelines etc. I have also worked in Nunavut and NWT for various First Nations and Metis Communities.

However, after the failure of the major all-parties oil sands infringement negotiations (during which I was a key negotiator) and the subsequent mishandling of oil sands policy and developments by the Federal and Provincial Conservative Governments, I could no longer ignore the fact that conservative political action was continuing to exploit and retard the development of our First Nations and therefore retard Canadian development.

My former political strategy was born in the days of Lester B. Person and Tommy Douglas[1] when the route to progress lay in cooperation between the NDP and Liberals. However, under the years of Pierre Trudeau’s career, the Liberals adopted a ‘right to rule’ attitude from which they have not completely recovered. After P.E. Trudeau left, the Liberal Party had lost its democratic flare and under Chretien the democratic base of the party was not rebuilt. Left with a weakened organization the Liberal Party was eventually dominated by politically correct vote hounds. So, Jack Layton and his consistent ideological faithfulness placed the NDP in the position of the natural alternative to the Conservatives who were drifting further to the right of the political spectrum. The Albertan NDP clearly took over the rational progressive field in Alberta where the provincial Liberals are still suffering from the oil company financed vilification of Trudeau during the 80s.

My original objective in writing these essays was to express my excitement about the victory of the NDP in Alberta and the prospect of reforming antiquated Government asset management systems currently used by ideologically stunted accounting systems. Asset management systems may not appear to be the most burning political issue but put in a more compelling way changing asset management systems amounts to changing the culture of government. The government requires a change in culture, a basic change in approach. We need badly to change our approach to resource management and take a more active and involved role as any good shepherd must. This could in fact be the most important legacy any new government could leave. Yet what does this have to do with Aboriginal Peoples? The answer is, plenty.

It is perhaps in the area of Aboriginal issues where the lack of proper resource administration can most clearly be shown; the place where the culture of government must change. Take for example the Wood Buffalo Region of northern Alberta where there have been some attempts at a regional “plan”. These regional plans, of course, are based upon an approach to natural resources which is ideologically based on individual ‘users’ of the resources rather than the public interest. According to this ideology the most important ‘stakeholders’ or users of the resources are the industrial users, the oil and gas, forestry, mining, hydroelectric or diamond exploration. These users are followed in priority by recreational hunters, off- road vehicle clubs and other ‘resources users’.

The problem is that this ideology does not recognize Aboriginal Rights nor, by the way, the public interest in general. It does not acknowledge collective rights of which both Aboriginal rights and the public interest are examples; because it is based upon an individualist philosophical core.

So what would a public interest approach look like? This approach starts with the ideal that resources are to be used and protected in the interest of the citizens of Alberta and of Canada. These public interests do not necessarily conflict with Aboriginal rights (to sustainably use these resources for their livelihood) however the current public interest is subject to the remaining rights of the First Peoples and the principles of reconciliation and sharing reflected in the meaning of our treaties. So rather than being just another stakeholder, Aboriginal Peoples have a prior claim on the resources of Canada with a commitment to share those resources with the rest of Canadians. Their interests must be reconciled with the general public interest. We need to remember that the sovereign public has an over-riding claim to the resources and individuals and stakeholders are only temporarily granted the right to use the resources, however, in the Proclamation of 1763, the British Monarch acknowledged the previous claims of the Native Peoples to the resources.

The Federal and Provincial Governments are regularly chastised by the Supreme Court for refusing to accept the well-established principle of Canadian constitutional law acknowledging these Aboriginal common law rights. The respect for these rights are consistent with NDP and Liberal ideologies but such philosophies can only be properly implemented with the actualization of a rational natural resource management and accounting system. Aboriginal Rights can finally play their constructive and appropriate role in mainstream resource management. Fundamental change in resource policy will have a significant effect on the expression of traditional aboriginal rights and culture and go a long way to re-build the momentum of Aboriginal societies and their health. It will also help settler society understand the full importance of the resources we have inherited.

Resources, health, education and social services are Provincial jurisdictions but the Federal Government has inherited the primary responsibility for Aboriginal Peoples. So the resources upon which Aboriginal people rely are administered by the governments who do not have primary responsibility for Aboriginal issues. This is a great contradiction in Canadian administration. In the late 1800s the Canadian government responded to their responsibility by creating the Indian Act which was drafted in an openly racist and paternalistic era. This act must be dismantled and replaced by a new Aboriginal Government structure which groups First Nations into their traditional natural nations and gives them more municipal-like powers with closer relationships to the provincial services. This must be done by First Nations and must involve all levels of government.

In summary, the election of new progressive governments in Canada presents an opportunity to change the old individualist ideologies embedded in resource management. Aboriginal rights would and should be a primary beneficiary of the acknowledgement of collective rights in our administration of resources and other public assets. Whether the government should work for individuals and individual rights or collective rights and the public interest is such a fundamental issue. However, it remains invisible because we are preoccupied with immediate deficits or other emergencies. Our emergencies will continue unless we solve the basic problems.


Jim Tanner

[1] It was the NDP under Tommy Douglas (Not David Lewis, who was certainly a brilliant and worthy character) that brought in the true social safety net that that Elizabeth May almost correctly referred to in her stellar federal election debate performance of last night.