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After 250 years, First Nations' challenges are still not 'political box office'

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Assembly of First Nations National Chief Sean Atleo used strong words on Monday morning to describe Canadian policy toward his people.

"It has been paternalist at best and assimilationist at worst," he said. And he repeated that phrase a few times during a news conference to mark the 250th anniversary of the 1763 Royal Proclamation.

Don’t feel chagrined if you can’t quite remember what they taught you in school about that Royal Proclamation. They probably taught you nothing at all.

Two hundred and fifty years ago, the proclamation was not, in fact, a ringing endorsement of aboriginal title to land or right to self-government. It was an instrument of geo-politics that came at the end of the Seven Years’ War, when Britain took over a huge swath of erstwhile French territory in what are now Canada and the USA.

King George III issued the proclamation affirming a qualified form of aboriginal title to territories beyond the heavily colonized and settled areas of North America for the purpose of buying the loyalty of First Nations who had been allied with the French.

The British authorities also wanted to head off massive land-grabbing and speculation by prospective settlers.

When the Canadian Constitution was amended in 1982 to include a Charter of Rights and Freedoms it made reference to the Royal Proclamation in the section dealing with aboriginal rights.

The fact that there was any reference at all in the Charter to Canada’s First Nations was only the result of intense pressure at the 11th hour from First Nations leaders.

First Nations had not been included in the constitutional negotiations that led to the Charter (and the new constitutional amending formula).

Those talks were limited to the 10 (white, male) provincial premiers and Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. But because of aboriginal leaders’ pressure, the 'white' leaders made a very reluctant, backhand, begrudging and last minute concession.

They included a clause stating that the rights guaranteed by the Charter "shall not be construed so as to abrogate or derogate from any aboriginal, treaty or other rights," and specifically mentioned "rights or freedoms that have been recognized by the Royal Proclamation."

A litany of failed attempts to redefine 'Crown-First Nations' relationship

Following the formal adoption of the 1982 constitutional changes, the federal government and the provinces made a number of half-hearted moves toward giving tangible meaning to the vague commitments on aboriginal rights in the Charter.

Trudeau asked northern Ontario MP Keith Penner to chair a special commission that came up with far reaching recommendations for genuine First Nations self-government.

Following that, there was a series of First Ministers’ and First Nations leaders’ conferences on self government that, in the end, went nowhere.

A majority of provinces were dead-set against anything that would -- even potentially -- diminish their powers or their total control over natural resources.

There were other failed attempts at redefining what we now call the "Crown-First Nations" relationship -- notably the failed Charlottetown Accord and the as-yet-unheeded recommendations of the Brian Mulroney-appointed Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples.

In the meantime, conditions for too many First Nations people have continued to fester.

The 250th anniversary of the Royal Proclamation is, thus, less of a day to celebrate than to mourn Canada’s historic failures vis-à-vis its first peoples.

When he spoke on Monday morning, Atleo talked about the concrete dimensions of that historic failure.

He talked about underfunded education, and about a federal government that has not managed to find a way to reform First Nations education in a way that recognizes First Nations control and rights.

He alluded to a First Nations incarceration rate that exceeds the graduation rate in many communities.

He talked about woefully inadequate housing and dangerous drinking water.

He mentioned both the court case on the underfunding of child welfare that is now under way and the hundreds of missing and murdered First Nations girls and women.

And he pointedly noted the Canadian government’s plans to encourage hundreds of billions of dollars of resource development without anything resembling serious negotiations with First Nations whose lands and communities will be directly affected.

Mulcair’s pledge: politically foolhardy?

On the anniversary of the Royal Proclamation, Canada’s First Nations are getting one of their infrequent and brief moments of mainstream media and political attention.

With next week’s Throne Speech, the Harper Government’s much-touted "middle-class" and "consumer-focused" agenda will push aboriginal people aside.

On Monday morning, one reporter asked Atleo what he might see in the Throne Speech that would tell him the Government was serious about its relations with First Nations.

The National Chief mentioned education reform and funding, accelerated negotiations of land claims (especially so-called comprehensive land claims for First Nations not covered by treaties) and an inquiry into missing and murdered First Nations women.

Canada’s First Nations people are not holding out too much hope that they’ll see any of that in next week’s Throne Speech.

And the view of the Ottawa insider class -- if what mainstream media have to say is any indication of that -- is that there is no political mileage to be gained from championing the cause of First Nations.

NDP and Official Opposition Leader Tom Mulcair used the occasion of the Royal Proclamation to announce that First Nations issues will be a central focus for his party going into the next election.

In a news release, the Party said:

New Democrats are determined to uphold the spirit of ‘honourable’ dealing,’ which the proclamation laid out 250 years ago. That’s why, this summer, our party travelled to First Nations, Inuit and Métis communities across the country to talk about how we can build a real nation-to-nation relationship. And that’s why we’re committed to doing what previous governments have failed to do for so long—to listen and to work together as partners.

Mulcair promises to make First Nations needs and issues an "all-of-government" priority, piloted by the Prime Minister, and not consigned to the margins, sequestered in the Aboriginal Affairs ministry. Knowledgeable folks in Ottawa -- including the former Auditor General, and current and former senior departmental officials -- have been saying such an approach is necessary for a long time.

Do not, however, expect Harper to adopt that approach next week. It is not something that would have any particular appeal to the voters he is after.

Even the Liberals’ Justin Trudeau -- so focused like a laser on that crucial middle class voter -- is unlikely to go too far in commitments to First Nations.

It’s just not seen as political box office in Ottawa.

In reporting on the NDP leader’s commitment, at least one reporter was quite candid about that hard fact.

The Globe and Mail’s Gloria Galloway wrote:

It is not a pledge that is likely to sway large numbers of voters. First Nations people make up less than 3 per cent of the Canadian population, voter turnout on reserves has been well below the national average, and non-aborginal Canadians do not, in general, rank indigenous issues high on a scale of importance.

If you wanted to know why governments seem so reluctant to act on First Nations needs and challenges, now you’ve got your answer.

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