On June 11, 2008, Prime Minister Stephen Harper made an historic apology to the Aboriginal people of this country for the legacy of Indian residential schools.  The apology was uncharacteristically solemn; uncharacteristically sincere.  Canada’s leader spoke of a new phase of Aboriginal-settler relations, anchored by the cornerstone of the Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission, that would forge a new relationship “based on knowledge of our shared history, a respect for each other, and a desire to move forward with a renewed understanding.”

This moment in Canadian history won’t happen again.  The urgency to seize it, and make it count, is the generational challenge before us, but it is a challenge the current government in Ottawa is fumbling.  New proposed legislation, the Extractive Sector Transparency Measures Act (ESTMA, hidden in a giant omnibus bill designed to overwhelm spirited debate) favours a cynical view over a supportive one regarding the steps Aboriginal people have taken towards impacts of extractive industrial development on their livelihoods. The bill is located here and we have written about it here. Tainting the pursuit of an Impact Benefit Agreement (IBA) with the spectre of an adequate status quo, this legislation will grind away at advances made between industry and Aboriginal people regarding the violation of Aboriginal and Treaty rights amidst resource development. Unlike other private right-of-way agreements between companies and landholders, ESTMA compels public disclosure of the financial compensation provided by these private agreements even though First Nations citizens are already entitled to know the details of IBAs negotiated by their governments.

Alongside the far-reaching First Nation Financial Transparency Act (which imposes disclosure standards on First Nation governments far exceeding those for municipal, provincial, and federal officials in other jurisdictions), and the off-loading of government accountability through take-it-or-leave-it federal funding agreements, the casting of First Nation governments as either corrupt or incompetent  drains on industry and government has become the main pillar of this federal government’s policy towards Aboriginal people.  It’s a compelling distraction from the far more overwhelming problems of inadequate housing, schools, water, sewage, electricity, skills training, and affordable food on many of Canada’s reserves and the woefully inadequate federal funding perpetuating it. That this is being done amidst the Conservatives’ lack of transparency over the alleged misallocation of $500 million in infrastructure funding intended for Indian reserves, and the Conservatives’ lack of transparency regarding the amount of public money used on partisan advertising during their last electoral term is an ugly double standard that has no place in a post Truth and Reconciliation Commission Canada.

So what does a relationship based on the knowledge of our shared history look like?  What does a relationship based on respect for each other look like?  What does a relationship based on a desire to move forward together with a renewed understanding look like?

This proud new relationship has examples sprouting up everywhere.

  • It is in Fort McMurray, where the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation owned company, Acden, has grown from two dump trucks in 1994 to what is today the largest employer in the oil sands support services. It is centred in the only LEED Gold compliant structure in the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, a glorious architectural space that earlier this year hosted Archbishop Desmond Tutu, himself urging for an inclusive response to the challenges of reconciliation.
  • It is in our bold courts, where the T’silhqotin Nation earlier this year were awarded aboriginal title, a judicial feat that in the stroke of a pen silenced skeptics convinced such an award would never happen. It did. And not only did the sky not fall, a standard of consent over proven title lands now ensures that the development that does proceed can do so predictably.
  • It is embedded in pockets of provincial policy, including Ontario’s Green Energy Act and the praiseworthy Aboriginal Loan Guarantee Program accompanying it.  This Program, detailed here, has resulted in the McLean’s Mountain Wind farm, a 60 MW renewable energy facility, owned 50% by the United Chiefs and Councils of Mnidoo Mnising, that achieved commercial operation earlier this year.

Each of these examples, and the countless others that are springing up from coast-to-coast-to-coast, defy the current cynicism embedded in the federal government’s policies towards Aboriginal peoples by putting into practice the aspirations of that apology of June 2008 and the framework established by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.  These examples refuse to accept the status quo as adequate, transcending an ‘us-vs-them’ approach to moving forward.  And they are successful.

But there are many challenges that remain, one of the largest of them being Treaty renewal. We depend on our governments to face these boldly, and indeed we cannot accept an approach from our leaders that suggests these challenges to be insurmountable.  They are fooling themselves.  After all, 40 years ago the oil sands were considered an uneconomic dream with no likelihood of being removed from the ground profitably.  Obviously that was overcome.  So why is the federal government so convinced they’re unable to overcome the challenge of reconciliation?

By Oliver MacLaren