Opinion: Trudeau’s Indigenous plan takes cues from the past

Justin Trudeau’s Indigenous strategy has suddenly become clearer. He is taking his cues from a road map laid out more than two decades ago by a controversial royal commission that, until now, has been roundly ignored.

His plan to cashier the Indian Act and split the Indigenous Affairs department in two comes straight from the 1996 playbook of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples.

Perhaps the most comprehensive examination of Indigenous issues in Canadian history, the commission focused on how to encourage a return to Indigenous self-government.

It said that only by regaining their political and economic autonomy could Indigenous communities solve the host of social problems afflicting them.

Ills such as family violence and alcohol abuse that afflict Indigenous people, it said, “are largely the result of their loss of land and resources, destruction of their economies and social institutions and denial of their nationhood.

“They seek a range of remedies for these injustices, but most of all they seek control of their lives.”

To the royal commission, that meant re-establishing between 60 and 80 Indigenous nations inside Canada and providing them with sufficient land, natural resources and money to succeed.

These nations would have the right to levy taxes, run their own social welfare systems and determine who could have access to their lands.

In cities like Toronto, Indigenous people might have their own social services and economic development programs.

Ultimately, the commission said, Indigenous people in Canada would elect members to an all-Indigenous third house of Parliament operating alongside the Commons and Senate.

In the meantime, it said, the government should spend $2 billion a year on Indigenous people to prepare them for self-government and assuage the pain caused by colonialism.

It was a bold and comprehensive report. It was also almost completely ignored.

Jean ChrÈtien’s austerity-focused Liberal government had no interest in spending billions on Indigenous people – or anyone else.

Ron Irwin, Indian Affairs minister at the time, said the $60 million it cost to fund the commission would have been better spent on Indigenous housing.

It seemed that the royal commission report had been relegated to the ashcan of history. Until now.

At one level, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s decision to have two ministers handling the Indigenous file is straightforwardly political. The government’s Indigenous agenda has stalled.

The inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls is mired in controversy. Dozens of Indigenous communities remain under boil-water advisories. The Liberal government is being called to task by the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal for underfunding child health and welfare services on reserves.

By appointing Jane Philpott to the new post of Minister of Indigenous Services while renaming Carolyn Bennett’s portfolio Crown-Indigenous Relations, the prime minister is signalling that Indigenous issues remain a priority.

But his decision also shows that he has adopted at least some the logic used by the 1996 royal commission.

It recommended that what was then called the Indian and Northern Affairs department be split in two, with one half handling social services and the other concentrating on renegotiating Aboriginal relationships with the Crown.

It also recommended scrapping the Indian Act, which has defined Indigenous-Crown relations since 1876. Trudeau says he will do that too in order to replace it with something less intrusive.

Trudeau has long talked, in a rather vague way, of renewing Canada’s relationship with Indigenous people and of doing so on a nation-to-nation basis. But until now, he has never hewed so explicitly to the interesting and very specific recommendations of the long-ignored Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples.

Thomas Walkom is a national affairs writer.

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