A promise made by the prime minister to overhaul the framework for Indigenous Affairs is an encouraging sign according to a policy analyst from the University of Saskatchewan.
In a speech to the House of Commons Wednesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said a new approach is needed to tackle challenges such as overcrowded housing, unsafe drinking water and the high rate of suicide among First Nations youth.
Ken Coates is the Macdonald-Laurier Institute’s senior policy fellow on Aboriginal and northern Canadian issues. Joining guest host Murray Wood on Gormley, he explained this promise has potential to change a broken system.
He predicts a shift in Indigenous governance towards larger regional bodies representing and managing their own affairs.
“We will see Indigenous governments emerge very appropriately as a new order of government in Canada with considerable autonomy from Ottawa,” Coates commented. “That means a backing off of all that structure, the Indian Act, Indigenous Affairs, all that sort of oppressive bureaucracy that Indigenous people have complained about for a very, very long time and that Ottawa has struggled with for a very long time.”
“We know the system doesn’t work, hopefully we’re moving toward a different system that puts the power back in the hands of Indigenous people,” commented Coates, who is also a research chair at the Johnson Shoyama School of Public Policy at the University of Saskatchewan.
Coates pointed out First Nations across the country have gone through the courts to redefine what their Aboriginal rights and modern treaty rights are along with the duty to consult on things like resource sector projects.
“Quite frankly this is sucking a lot of the soul out of Canada when we have these constant conflicts over legal issues, legal interpretations and such issues as self-government, the management of Indigenous Affairs and the management of reserve rights,” Coates said.
In passing judgements overwhelmingly in favour of First Nations, he noted the Supreme Court has called for a more consistent negotiated resolution dealing with these issues across the country.
Coates said there are examples of arrangements across northern Canada which allow for appropriate consultation and involvement with First Nations on resource development.
“We’ve actually figured this out in part, but of course we end up with a bit of a hodge-podge of a country where if something works well in one part of the country, it doesn’t work well in another part of the country,” Coates said.
He said this leads to a convoluted system where resource companies and provincial or territorial governments don’t really know how to handle it.
Coates said the government appears to be taking an opportunity to change the whole dynamic of how it relates to Indigenous people, which may even go so far as to change the Indian Act.
“Perhaps talk about empowering Indigenous peoples to take full control of their own affairs really for the first time in 150 years,” Coates said.
In addition to issues of self-governance and control over healthcare and education, this could also have implications on the duty to consult on major development projects and share resource revenue with First Nations across the country.
Coates also noted the process of full consultation with Indigenous people to develop these new policies is a significant step forward in history.
The new Recognition and Implementation of Indigenous Rights Framework is set to be unveiled later this year following consultations with First Nations, Metis and Inuit people.