The federal government may not have implemented a single recommendation of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal People (it has never fulfilled the self-government promise of the Constitution Act of 1982) but, it is implementing a major policy initiative concerning the rights of aboriginals.

The bad news is that what the Liberals have chosen to move forward with is not any of the progressive initiatives that have been proposed or promised. It is essentially Jean Chrétien’s much-reviled and aptly-named White Paper on Indian Policy, which dates back to 1969.

The First Nations Governance Act is still the same wrongheaded assimilation tactic pushed by Chrétien thirty-four years ago. At the time, Chrétien argued that “Indian relations with other Canadians began with special treatment by government and society, and special treatment has been the rule since Europeans first settled in Canada. Special treatment has made of the Indians a community disadvantaged and apart. Obviously, the course of history must be changed.” If anything needs to be changed, it’s the federal government’s patronizing and dismissive approach to dealing with First Nations.

When the bill was first introduced in 2001 by Indian and Northern Affairs Minister Robert Nault (as staunch a Chrétien loyalist as you’re likely to find), it was immediately criticized by the elected leadership of aboriginal people in Canada. They correctly noted that Chrétien’s desire for assimilation was merely being disguised in terms of “openness and accountability,” and that aboriginal nations would be forced to accept a status little better than municipalities. Nault’s response was not to withdraw the bill or to change it. He merely decided to go around those elected leaders, allegedly to “speak directly” to aboriginal people, which he proposed to do primarily through Websites.

The Liberals are still at it. They have refused to withdraw their legislation despite witness after witness who has called on them to do so. Last week, the Standing Committee on Aboriginal Affairs was the scene of Liberal threats, insults and unparliamentary tactics. MPs Pat Martin (NDP) and Yvan Loubier (Bloc) attempted to debate the bill and delay its passage.

The Assembly of First Nations’ (AFN) Acting National Chief Charles Fox joined Loubier and Martin at a press conference. Fox strongly denounced the Liberal tactics:

“What we’ve been seeing the last few days can only be described as the tyranny of the majority. Liberal members of the Standing Committee have been insisting on closed door meetings, using procedural tricks to cut off legitimate debate physically threatening Committee members from other parties, and arrogantly disregarding the testimony of hundreds of First Nations witnesses. The Minister himself has taken punitive action against our peoples and governments for not supporting his new Indian Act. And they claim they can lecture First Nations about openness and accountability?”

AFN Chief Matthew Coon Come commented in January: “I cannot understand why this Minister is so dogged and determined to force something on First Nations that absolutely no one wants. As a person, I simply cannot understand it.” The AFN had countered the Liberal approach with a call for “Facilitating the Exercise of Self Government: A Cooperative Approach between Canada and the Assembly of First Nations.”

The AFN plan “incorporates the Minister’s issues — things like accountability and elections — but also deals with the issues First Nations want to talk about. These include immediate priorities like the pressing social and economic conditions facing First Nations and fundamental issues like nation re-building, treaty implementation and the inherent right to self-government.” For example:

  • Facilitating the exercise by First Nations of their inherent right to self-government
  • Removing barriers — enhancing community healing, economic development, accountability and capacity
  • Modification of existing legislation, policies, regulations, procedures and institutions to support the exercise of the inherent right
  • Linking Governance with Aboriginal Title, and Aboriginal and Treaty rights
  • Enhancing nation rebuilding through meaningful community dialogue
  • Incorporating appropriate timeframes and enhancing Nation-to-Nation relationships
  • Informed participation and ratification of outcomes

The alternative plan was all but ignored by Nault and Chrétien.

In 1970, then Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau promised that “we will not force anything on you.” In the last throne speech, Chrétien assured the First Nations that “we will not be deterred by the length of the journey” in dealing with their issues. But it appears Chrétien has been deterred. He has decided that he really does want to force something on the First Nations. If passing misguided policies that he first advocated over three decades ago is a legacy, Jean Chrétien may have finally found his. Too bad it’s not one to be proud of.


Scott Piatkowski

Scott Piatkowski is a former columnist for He wrote a weekly column for 13 years that appeared in the Waterloo Chronicle, the Woolwich Observer and ECHO Weekly. He has also written for Straight...