One year since the political accord: where are we now?

Aboriginal Law | Self-Government

On August 24, 2015, the Premier of Ontario and the Ontario Regional Chief signed a “Political Accord” which formalized an agreement to work together on common goals. Members of the Political Confederacy negotiated the final version of the Political Accord which included a recognition of the fact that there were already important bilateral processes underway or planned within regions, between First Nations and PTOs (Provincial Territorial Organizations) about substantive issues and priorities. Political Confederacy (PC) members include the Grand Chiefs from across Ontario, and the Political Accord guaranteed two high level meetings between the PC and the Premier of Ontario every year.

Formalized relationship documents are something I have advised on throughout my career — at both the PTO-level and with First Nations. Now, as a senior advisor of the Regional Chief, Isadore Day, I am working on various matters in implementing this Political Accord alongside the various Directors of the Chiefs of Ontario organization. The PC is instrumental in making this more formal relationship work, and I have the privilege of working with the Directors as well. From my experiences in these roles, I would like to offer some personal reflections, one year out from when we signed the Political Accord.

On August 24, 2015, I had the honour of being present for the signing of the Political Accord. I was then Chief of Couchiching First Nation. I was not as informed of the negotiations and high-level strategy that the PC representatives had taken with this document then. Now, I understand the waterfall of responsibilities and commitments within this short document. Foundationally, the Province of Ontario recognizes the important goal of First Nation self-government for the collective good of Ontario. In order to assist in that goal there are now important discussions around inherent rights and Indigenous jurisdiction.

This is the important project of the Political Accord, in my opinion, co-jurisdiction. Child well-being jurisdiction is being discussed with representatives across the Province all in the same room with First Nation’s political and technical representatives. This work will require policy-wide approval across the Government of Ontario. The idea of these frank and concrete discussions is that it will open the door for the substantive bilateral tables for the Anishinabek Nation, Grand Council Treaty #3, Association of Iroquois and Allied Indians, Six Nations, and others once Ontario’s jurisdiction is disentangled from Indigenous child care services. At this point, it is only a project, but with these discussions some seeds are sown to create “believers” in First Nation jurisdiction within the Ministry.

It definitely helps that there are believers in the Province of Ontario. Many believers in Indigenous self-governance hold important posts in this present provincial government. Trust and very consistent effort is required in order to engage in sharing such big ideas with other governments. There is a groundswell happening in this very old colonial government now called the Province of Ontario, as more and more believers are born. Imagine the work done to achieve the May 30, 2016 “The Journey Together” announcement by Premier Kathleen Wynne. This historic commitment to implement recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is extremely promising for First Nations. It could not have been done without trust and concerted effort between the parties to the Political Accord.

More work has to be done. The PC has an important responsibility to be the lynch-pin between those existing, substantive bilateral tables undertaken with PTOs and the Province of Ontario, and forwarding “key issues” which like true keys will open the door to more success for the First Nations and the PTOs across the Province. Those key issues are the substance of the Political Accord discussions.

Important political, policy and legal matters have already been forwarded with success. Witness the Hydro One agreement-in-principle that could bring substantive wealth-building opportunity to all First Nations in Ontario. This was only made possible by bringing key issues forward at an “Energy Grievance Table” and through direct, focussed discussions between individual First Nations and the Ministry of Energy. This effort has cleared the path for substantive negotiations on sharing in the broadening of the ownership of Hydro One with First Nations. It has also cleared the path for an Ontario Energy Board led process to create a First Nation on-reserve hydro rate in 2017.

Similar strategic approaches are possible by the First Nations designing the strategy themselves, as was done on the important energy files. Child welfare, social services, criminal justice, and the environment all have co-jurisdiction elements that need to be discussed in a reconciliation effort. The Political Accord creates three layers of strategic push and pull to work towards the goal of self-government for First Nations in Ontario. The Ontario Regional Chief and the PC members have important roles in ensuring that the effort does not prove counter-productive in any of the important First Nation-led forums underway.

The Constitution of Canada has been called a living tree. This living tree is sown by a commitment to the Indigenous peoples that their pre-existing societies would continue to prosper alongside Canada. Like the soil that the tree is planted in, the relationship must be fed by that tree, and the tree is fed by the soil. This dynamic and very important relationship of the Canadian legal and political machinery with Indigenous communities is finally seeing the attention it deserves. In unity, there is strength.

By Sara Mainville