When we feel anything at all, most Canadians feel ashamed at the treatment served up to our indigenous people. We have consistently violated historical agreements, and this practice dates back a century and more. Most Canadians are oblivious to the fact that South Africa modelled its system of apartheid explicitly on the Canadian Indian Reserves model. That fact is not taught in our schools, perhaps because we are too ashamed of it -- and rightly so.
New events have cast all this history in a new light. I'm thinking specifically of the recent Supreme Court ruling that our Metis and non-status Indians are to be now recognized as Indians under the Constitutional Act. And of course, the Idle No More movement has brought all this to the forefront of consciousness in this country. It is too big to ignore.
Some of the opinions on this decision could be predicted. The economists, epitomized by Robert Lovelace (a global development studies professor at Queens University in Kingston, Ontario), declare that "This ruling could cost the government billions." On the other side, more than a few non-Metis First Nations people see this as a dilution of the moneys they currently receive. And finally, more than a few Metis people themselves are grateful that they were not included in the original definition of First Nations people, because their exclusion kept them out of the reserves system and forced them to fend for themselves; hence, overall they are doing better than the traditional First Nations people.
The Indian Act itself, whose most recent iteration was in 1985, has come under fire, with some on both sides arguing for its abolition. (For the document in full, see The Indian Act (RSC 1985.)
One thing is perfectly clear: the gap between the AFN and the federal government is so huge that tinkering with a clause here and there satisfies no one, and further, gives the federal government both grounds to say "We're trying" and excuses to do nothing substantive.
I have a more radical, but in my view far more sensible, proposal:
Abolish the Indian Act and replace it not with some similar act, but rather to declare a new Canadian province, comprised of all the reserves, crown lands, and lands currently under territory arising from land-claim settlements.
Note: Until I began to research this notion and its consequences, I had no idea that a formal paper on exactly this proposal exists. It was written by Thomas J. Courchene and Lisa M. Powell, of the Institute for Intergovernmental Relations, at Queens University in Kingston, Ontario. (For the full document, see A First Nations Province).
There are more than 2,250 reserves in Canada, comprising approximately 600 First Nations governments. As of the 2006 national census, there were 1,172,790 First Nations people in Canada (this number includes First Nations, Inuit and Metis).
The following chart shows population by province from 2008 to 2012.
|Newfoundland and Labrador
|Prince Edward Island
|Note: Population as of July 1.
|Source: Statistics Canada, CANSIM, table 051-0001.
|Last modified: 2012-09-27.
To put it another way, the First Nations Province would be larger than Newfoundland and Labrador, Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Saskatchewan, Yukon, Northwest Territories and Nunavut. Given that the creation of FNP would also be the subtraction of these people from the provincial numbers above, it's quite possible that FNP would surpass Manitoba as well, in terms of population.
Above all, the creation of FNP would finally give the First Nations peoples a place at all the First Ministers conferences, and entitle them to all the benefits and responsibilities enjoyed by the other provinces.
This change would have dramatic consequences, virtually all of which would be good in the end. perhaps the most immediate and obvious consequence would be the instant creation of a new "have not" province, and thus a significant shift in the moneys paid out in equalization payments. This new virtual province would also become responsible for education and medical plans; and be able to impose provincial taxes on its citizens. There are many more consequences, which have been addressed thoroughly in the paper cited above. I encourage the interested reader to examine this paper and give it careful consideration.
There remains the serious question of how to consolidate so many First Nations governments into a single entity. One thing is clear, however: this is not a problem for the federal government to solve. That is exactly the wrong thing to do. This is best left for the First Nations peoples themselves to solve.
I don't expect a solution to appear overnight. But I see no reason why the First Nations peoples would object to this proposal. On the other hand, I can easily imagine the federal government's objections, virtually all of which reduce to dollars. That in my view is unacceptable -- as unacceptable as was South African apartheid.