Tag Archives: first nations

#Idlenomore as an existential threat

Almost three years ago (although I only worked up the nerve to post it two years ago, so sensitive is the topic), I wrote a blog post about First Nations youth, and how I suspected they were going to radically alter Canada’s relationship with First Nations, and likely change the very notion of how people understand and think about First Nations peoples.

If you haven’t read that old post, please consider taking a look.

To be clear, I’m not claiming I predicted #idlenomore, but thanks to an amazing opportunity to be part of the Environics Institute and the  Urban Aboriginal Peoples Study, it was plainly obvious to me some tectonic shifts were occurring.

Now I want to go further out on a limb.

Back in May 2010, I said the next First Nations debate won’t include you (e.g. non-aboriginals). And despite what Idle No More looks like, I don’t think it does include most non-First Nations. My sense – which could be completely off-base, but which I posit in my previous post – is that there is an internal debate within the First Nations community about leadership, identity, power, institutions and First Nations’ relationship with Canada. Yes, #idlenomore is about the omnibus bill, and about First Nations’ role in Canada, but it is also about  how First Nations organize and see themselves. And it is fostering conversations and relationships within their community that will not create a single unitary consensus, but that will change the way First Nations relate and talk to the rest of Canada, their expectations of their leadership, and equally importantly, their expectations of us. They will be better prepared for the next conversation they want to have with non-aboriginal Canadians.

It will be exciting. And we non-aboriginals will be utterly unprepared.

This is because we don’t want to talk about these issues. Worse, we don’t know how to. And, most critically, we’re deeply scared to. In the minds of many Canadians, Idle No More represents an existential threat to the notion of Canada.

Why? Because it challenges us in deeply uncomfortable ways.

It challenges core notions of Canadian identity. Canadians believe people should be given a fair chance and that they should be treated equally. A conversation about #idlenomore would force Canadians to engage in a dialogue about equality and fairness on terms we might find uncomfortable. Canadians know many First Nations live in third-world conditions, but they mostly want the government to make the problem go away.

It challenges our sense of history. Few Canadians – and the current government especially – like to explore or understand the role of First Nations in our history. The First World War and our connections to “empire” earn more attention in curriculum than a complex exploration of the fact that Canada is a colony, and has embraced some of the darkest aspects that come with colonialism. There is racism in Canada. There is structural inequity. It doesn’t mean that Canada is racist, or that Canadians are racist. But there is racism. And we can’t even talk about it. Indeed, at present we seem fixated on celebrating pitched battles that defined the state, not the relationships, choices, and elements of our history that define our culture and critically explore who we are as a people.

And it challenges our institutions: Canadians fear that a conversation about First Nations threatens to undermine the role of parliament, of non-aboriginal rights to decide what happens in their community. In Vancouver – a complex place for First Nations/non-First Nations relations – many residents pass a giant glowing billboard erected by First Nations next to the Burrard Street bridge and fear that is the future in a renegotiated world. Don’t underestimate the scope and power of these fears. Just look at Christy Blatchford – a columnist who in one week mocks both the validity of First Nations as entities and the treaties we signed since they “were expected to be in place ‘as long as the sun shines, the grass grows and the river flows,'” and sees no irony in arguing the very next week that the unwillingness of the police to execute a judge’s order to dismantle a First nations barricade is a threat to the rule of law. So clearly, inconvenient treaties with First Nations – cited in our constitution – are disposable, while an order from a provincial judge is sacrosanct. It takes a special sense of privilege to believe these two ideas are compatible. Challenging our institutions will feel threatening, particularly to the beneficiaries of our current system (and let’s face it, non-aboriginals do pretty well by the status quo). This will create fear. Some of the concerns will be legitimate. Just as the fears, concerns and aspirations of First Nations are also legitimate. But fear is not a legitimate reason to avoid having a conversation.

Today, First Nations are having an internal conversation, as well as a debate with the Canadian state. But at some point, this conversation will be had with Canadians writ large. It might not be a single national conversation – it might be a million small ones that happen as an increasingly urban, educated and confident First Nations cohort become co-workers, neighbours and friends of more and more Canadians. And when that conversation happens, my hope is that we’ll recognize that it is an existential threat to what we believed Canada was. And much like #idlenomore is changing First Nations communities, this conversation will create a new understanding of Canada – in the same way a still ongoing conversation about Sikhs, Chinese, Jamaicans and other immigrants changed who we are and how Canadians saw themselves.

I just hope we handle the conversation well. And I confess I have no idea how to get prepared. Engaging the other is never easy, whether you are aboriginal or non-aboriginal. But think about attending a protest; don’t shy away from the articles (though, try to find stuff actually written by someone who is First Nations, rather than a pundit in a newspaper); and mostly, be open to the possibility for conversation and prepare to be triggered, and think about how you want to react when it happens.

So far, New Zealand is the only country I’ve seen that has had this conversation with its indigenous peoples in any meaningful way. I’m working on trying to find out more about how that process – which I’m sure was far from perfect – emerged and took place.

Because maybe it is time non-aboriginals get prepared, too. It would be a basic expression of respect.

Urban Aboriginal Interview and survey

For those who haven’t caught it, there is a great piece/interview by Jeffrey Simpson of Mark Podlasly in the Globe and Mail about urban aboriginals, identity politics and economic opportunity. I encourage you to take a look – it’s a quick read.

If, however, you find all of this deeply interesting… I strongly encourage you to swing over to the Urban Aboriginal People’s Survey website and, to even download the report. The report summarizes the findings of the first survey of Urban Aboriginal People in Canada – looking at their identity, aspirations and situation. The questions were designed, and the conclusions shaped by, an Aboriginal advisory circle so that the substantive of the report has been driven by first nations people. Mark – happily – was a part of this circle.

As Canadians this is deeply interesting and important stuff. An increasing number of aboriginal people live in cities and they are forming a growing part of the work force. It’s an issue that is likely to impact many communities – especially those in the west. Hope you find it interesting!

Articles I'm digesting at the moment

While I keep track of the books I’m reading to the right I don’t often get to talk about the articles I’m reading and loving. Here are a few I’ve stumbled over in the past week that I’m still digesting.

1) Via Mike T, Obama and the dawn of the Fourth Republic by Michael Lind on the cycles of American progress and why the next 36 years are going to be very exciting.

During the first 36-year period of a republic, ambitious nation-builders in the tradition of Alexander Hamilton strengthen the powers of the federal government and promote economic modernization. During the second 36-year phase of a republic, there is a Jeffersonian backlash, in favor of small government, small business and an older way of life. During the backlash era, Jeffersonians manage to modify, but never undo, the structure created by the Hamiltonians in the previous era.

2) Via Alo, Why Canada has to wait for it’s Obama Moment, by Jeff Roberts. A piece few Canadians would be willing to write about why the politics of Aboriginals and the rest of Canada remain separated.

In the case of black Americans, their ascension to the political mainstream came in part from leaving behind talk of rights and identity and embracing a postracial style of politics. Barack Obama’s rise has followed his willingness to move away from the swamp of identity politics.

It’s a thesis that parallels that of Calvin Helin’s in Dances with Dependency that I thoroughly enjoyed. Moreover, Roberts is only half right. There is an emerging generation of (particularly urban) First Nations who are going to transform the politics of both the First Nations community and Canada.

3) Via Jeff A, Printing The NYT Costs Twice As Much As Sending Every Subscriber A Free Kindle by Nicholas Carlson . Shocked? You should be. As the author concludes:

Are we trying to say the the New York Times should force all its print subscribers onto the Kindle or else? No. That would kill ad revenues and also, not everyone loves the Kindle.

What we’re trying to say is that as a technology for delivering the news, newsprint isn’t just expensive and inefficient; it’s laughably so.

Besides, think of the forests that would be saved.

4) Via Amy L, The $300 Million Dollar Button, by Jared Spool. As Amy said to me, “you’re a believer in small changes” which I am. Very often I find people jump for the big lever to create big change which often creates numerous unanticipated (and almost always unwanted) changes. I’m much more interested in finding the small lever that creates big change. This piece is about precisely one of those moments in the design of a webpage.

It’s hard to imagine a form that could be simpler: two fields, two buttons, and one link. Yet, it turns out this form was preventing customers from purchasing products from a major e-commerce site, to the tune of $300,000,000 a year. What was even worse: the designers of the site had no clue there was even a problem.

Canada's racial stalemate

Calvin Helin author of Dances with DependencyThe other week – as virtually everybody is now aware – Obama gave his much celebrated speech on the racial stalemate in America.

Here in Canada we have a stalemate as well. It is discussed less frequently (if at all) then the American stalemate Obama spoke of, and it does not fall along clearly delineated racial lines. I am speaking of the stalemate between First Nations and the rest of Canada. On page 157 0f his book “Dances with Dependency: Indigenous Success through Self-Reliance” (if you don’t have a copy I highly recommend picking one up), aboriginal rights activist Calvin Helin writes a paragraph that parallels the sentiment of Obama’s speech.

When chronicling and discussing the very real problem of abuses of power, mismanagement, nepotism and corruption found on some First Nation band councils, Helin notes:

Aboriginal people are reluctant to speak publicly about these issues because they do not wish to provide grist for the political right in Canada who many feel are racist, and have no real interest in actually trying to make the situation better (though often there is a sizable, but silent contingent that supports the publication of such issues in what might be considered right-of-centre publications, because they are regarded as only telling the truth and trying to make things better for the ordinary Aboriginal folks). Generally, non-aboriginal observers have been reluctant to raise this issue as well because, in the current climate of political correctness, they might automatically be labelled as racists. Even the many Chiefs and Councils that are running honest governments in the best interests of their members feel compelled to defend against such reported abuses, because they fear their activities may become tarred with a brush that does not apply in their particular circumstances. Usually when this matter is raised publicly, there are entrenched positions on both sides of the debate and little communications as to how to solve these problems. (my own italics)

While this hardly captures the entire dynamic, it highlights an important dimension of Canada’s racial stalemate.  That anger and guilt in both communities – aboriginals and non-aboriginals – can sometime build narratives about the other that reinforce their mutual distrust and preventing us from reaching out and finding a way to address what is our country’s most important challenges.

I suspect this stalemate will not last. A new force could be about to completely alter this debate. A new generation – a demographic tsunami in fact – of smart, educated, and motivated young First Nation is about to crest over this country (While Calvin Helin is an excellent example, he is much older than the cohort I’m thinking of). I’m not sure that non-aboriginal leaders – and, to be frank, current aboriginal leaders – are even aware of what is about to hit them. Gauging from those I have met and befriended, this cohort is frustrated, but motivated, organized and very pragmatic. But perhaps, most importantly, they increasingly urban and, not as tied to the power structures of the reserves or chiefs. In this regard they transcend the discussion, living in, and comfortable in, both the aboriginal and non-aboriginal domain. One way or another they are will redefine this debate.

First Nations Negotiation Process: …and into the fire

Yesterday I was commenting on Jim Prentices proposed reform to the First Nations treaty negotiation process. Specifically, he is considering giving the Indian Claims Commission (ICC) the authority to make legal rulings and thus settle agreements.

While the details have not all been made clear, it would appear that Prentice’s reform seeks to shift the ICC’s role from that of mediator – where any agreement is determined by the parties themselves rather than being imposed by a third party – to arbitrator – where agreements are imposed by the arbitrator and to which the disagreeing parties agree, in advance, to be bound.

The problem with arbitration is that it may not solve the underlying problems plaguing the process. For example, Prentice sites two shortcomings of the current process – it is too slow, and not perceived to be legitimate.

Arbitration, may increase the speed. However, it may not be any more legitimate, and could actually be less so…

For example, on what basis would arbitrated decisions be made? What would be the guiding principles the arbitrators would reference? Who would establish these principles? Will these be negotiated? If so, by who? All First Nations and the government? Or a representative sub-group? Ultimately, if the principles that guide the arbitration are not perceived by all parties to be fair and legitimate, or if the arbitrators themselves lack the respect of the opposing parties then the process may actually be seen as less legitimate then the current negotiations.

Indeed, this is even more important given the nature of the negotiations. Because the parties are negotiating over sovereignty this process is deeply political. Will Canadians, or First Nation, feel comfortable handing such a sensitive decision over to a third party who has no track record in making these decisions and so, to which the outcomes will be unpredictable?

Another problem with arbitration is that it does little to resolve any relationship/trust/cooperation problems between the parties. By bringing in a third party to resolve the dispute First Nations and the government will establish a problematic precedent: When we don’t agree, bring someone else in to arbitrate.

In many respects, treaty settlements are not the end of the process but the beginning. Treaties form the basis for a new relationships between First Nations and the government. Regardless of the treaty’s specifics, the parties are going to have to learn to work together more effectively going forward. To assume, that once the settlement is out of the way, all the actors will know their jurisdictions and powers and so will get along, is probably a false one. Just ask anyone whose ever worked on Fed-Prov relations…

If Canadians are serious about creating a new relationship with First Nations it feels odd that the first step in establishing this new relationship would be to put a third party between the two groups. Negotiating can be fair, legitimate and (relatively) speedy. The question isn’t about arbitration, it is about whether this (or any) government wants to make it a priority.

First Nations Negotiation Process: Out of INAC and…

It is looking increasingly likely that Jim Prentice will reform the First Nations treaty negotiation process. Specifically, he is considering giving the Indian Claims Commission (ICC) the authority to make legal rulings and thus settle agreements.

While the full implications of this decision need to be weighed one part that is a positive development is getting these negotiations out of the hands of INAC. It must be difficult for First Nations to believe that the government is negotiating in good faith when the party they are negotiating with is the same party that provides all their services. This point became the basis for a discussion paper I submitted to the Aboriginal Report to the Liberal Renewal Commission and shared as a post on the Dominion Institute Blog.

“On the one hand, INAC is First Nations’ key partner, essential to ensuring service delivery, representing them and their issues at the cabinet table, and enabling them to raise critical issues in other government ministries. On the other hand, it is also their negotiation counterpart with whom it may be necessary to lock horns and disagree with to ensure a fair and equitable interpretation of their treaty (or in the case of aboriginal groups in British Columbia, to secure a treaty).”

It would appear that even Jim Prentice recognizes the perceived conflict of interest in having his department simultaneously represent First Nations interests within cabinet while negotiating against them… During an interview on Question Period he apparently conceded: “There has been a complaint in this country for 60 years that the government of Canada serves as the defendant and the judge and the jury and the research body. And that it’s too much. And the government of Canada is in conflicting roles. And that’s something that we are trying to get to the heart of.”


So moving negotiations out of INAC is a plus. But their remains the question of whether an independent committee like the ICC will be any more legitimate. I’ve argued that the way forward is the establishment of an independent secretariat – with its head reporting directly to cabinet – as the home for these negotiations. Both sides need to represent their interests, handing the process over to a third party probably does not accomplish that. More importantly, an independent may be faster but it is also unclear if it will be more legitimate then the current process. In short, done incorrectly, this may be create as many problems as it solves…

I’ll pick up on this thread tomorrow. For now, Prentice is off to an interesting start. At least he’s thinking new thoughts. However, my fear is that this line of thinking will devolve into: “Out of INAC and into the fire…”

Liberal Renewal – Aboriginal Task Force Report

Download the Report here.

In the spring of 2006 Tom Axworthy was tasked by the Liberal Party to set up a Renewal Commission that would brainstorm policy ideas to help renew the party’s platform. Let us, for now, put aside the numerous problems inherent in this process (I promise to write about that soon) and instead focus on the output of this commission.

In the late summer of 2006 the Party began to publish some of the reports on its website here. However, while the link remains active only a handful of the reports commissioned and completed were ever released. Moreover, as some of you have observered, the “renewal” link has disappeared from the Liberal Party webpage.

The authors of the Aboriginal Report (of which I was the only non-aboriginal) have jointly decided to put forward our ideas independently. So please click here to find our report. Please note that this report is not an official Liberal Party report and is not Liberal Party policy. It is merely the effort of several young progressives to reframe the debate and provide interesting ideas in an effort to move this important issue forward. Please also feel free to post your concerns, critiques, ideas, thoughts, praise… anything.

We continue to believe in renewal and the ideal that healthy political parties encourage and promote healthy debate – particularly on the most pressing policy issues facing our country. If other renewal commission heads are out there and would like to post their reports (as independent pieces – not official Liberal Renewal Commission Reports) I’m happy to do so. I know that the Environmental Report, which was also never released, is available here. Let’s let a thousand flowers bloom.

19/03/2007: Some of you may have noticed this piece in the Toronto Star that talks about the Aboriginal Report. Clearly copies made it into circulation before it got posted on this site.

[tags]liberal party of canada, aboriginal, public policy [/tags]