Several months ago I commented on something Tony Clement and Brian Lee Crowley said about “reaching out to First Nations.” Then, just yesterday, I said that First Nations will not be satisfied with the upcoming flurry of inquiries and studies and well meaning reports. In today’s Globe and Mail, Brian Gable, in an editorial cartoon, sums up the problem:
The fact ~ and it is a fact because the Supreme Court has ruled it to be such ~ is that we, those of us living here today, and our ancestors, and some complete strangers’ ancestors, too, have besmirched the “honour of the crown,” as the Supremes put it.
Now, right now, someone will pop up and say: “Hey, I never did anything to any native Canadian, I don’t even know any First Nations person, my family just arrived here a few years ago … I don’t have to pay for something someone else did that doesn’t benefit me.” Wrong! It very likely does benefit you. “We,” through corporations set up by Canadians in the 1870s that still exist today and provide jobs and part of the tax base and that are in your (public or private) pension fund, tarnished the “honour of the crown” by dealing unfairly with First Nations … the Supremes have decided that it is time to provide some redress. If you don’t like it then you can move to someplace like Poland where there do not seem to many problems with indigenous peoples.
The plight of First Nations is not all the fault of the “settler” society. Some First Nations leadership is criminally poor and should be in court, facing criminal charges, not negotiating with governments as near “equals,” and some First Nations are, quite simply, not viable in socio-economic terms in the 21st century … not, in any event, in the way that some First Nations peoples want them to exist. But the plight of many First nations is real and I have read suggestions that solving it will require, for decades, the resources that we currently assign to e.g. national defence: say $500 Billion over 25 years ~ $20 Billion a year, year after year, after year because many First Nations need (and are entitled to, because it seems pretty clear that, back in the 18th century, the British parliament intended to treat fairly with them) pretty much everything most of us take for granted: clean water, half decent schools, adequate housing, and, above all, jobs that provide some hope for the future.
Some First Nations leaders have the bit between their teeth: emboldened by the Supreme Court’s decisions they want it all and they want it now. Others want to negotiate for even more, for levels of political independence that, it seems to me, were not envisioned in the 18th and 19th and even for most of the 20th centuries. Still others, those First Nations that were well managed and successful, just want the law, the government, to “get out of the way.”
What cannot be denied, I think, is that we have a festering sore on the Canadian body politic. It is something we can and must understand and with a lot of good will and a lot of money it is something we can put right. And the money need not be wasted: if we help First Nations to help themselves then they become productive members of society and they are no longer a social, economic and internal security problem.
What is not needed is another study filled with platitudes, what is not needed is another apology; what is needed is a coherent, concrete set of plans and programmes ~ because one size will not fit all ~ that will help First Nations to survive and prosper within the broader construct of 21st century Canada. The programme, whatever it might be, will be complicated by recent court decisions regarding who is, and is not, a member of any of Canada’s First Nations and by some First Nations’ rather restrictive, and contradictory, views on the same subject. It is very possible that political and policy divisions between First Nations, themselves, will be at least as hard to resolve as the divisions between First Nations and the Canadian government.
There cannot, however, be a one-way street. First Nations must join in building 21st century Canada, not obstructing it. My guess is that most First Nations will come to the table to negotiate in good faith IF they understand that the government of Canada is intent on finding a fair, just and sound solution to the problems. Conservative leaders should offer Canadians, including First Nations, a plan that will meet most of the key, understood economic and social needs of almost all groups. That plan needs to be realistic: it needs to recognize that First Nations have legitimate grievances and that it is wrong, morally and politically, to allow them to fester; it needs to recognize that one size does not fit all First Nations; it needs to recognize that a few First Nation leaders are not prepared to negotiate in good faith; and it needs to tell Canadians that their tax dollars will have to be used to provide redress for the First Nations’ legitimate grievances but that the aim will be to make First Nations economically and socially viable for the long term, not just to throw money at the same old problems … over and over again, and again, and again.