The timing could not have been better had it been planned. But of course it wasn’t planned at all. Maybe the happy coincidence is a sign from the heavens that this time, at long last, the tragedy of Canada’s First Nations is finally being taken seriously.

The organizers of Canadians for a New Partnership — a partnership between Indigenous Canadians and all Canadians launched on Thursday — could have had no notion that the Harper government would express willingness this week to join in discussions on the epidemic of deaths among Aboriginal women. The provincial premiers had made these murders a priority a week earlier. Now two different Harper ministers have signaled Ottawa’s sudden willingness to co-operate. Clearly this was a new government posture, which meant the Prime Minister himself had ordered it.

The best guess going is that Mr. Harper realized he had finally gone too far in his public statements on the murders of Aboriginal women and had been embarrassed by the scathing criticism he had evoked. In dismissing the call for an inquiry into their deaths, the Prime Minister had summed up his view that rehabilitating criminals was not the main purpose of the criminal justice system; simple punishment was.

This was not the first time. He had already articulated this medieval view after the Boston marathon bombing, when Justin Trudeau commented that we should seek the root causes of the crime. The Prime Minister had reacted with disdain. This was not the time, he pronounced, to “commit sociology.”

Besides the innovative phrasing, who can understand why a “trained economist” should harbour such contempt for his sociologist peers? But he was at it again just the other day, asserting that the violent deaths of all those Aboriginal women was not a “sociological phenomenon” but a simple crime. The cruel dogmatism at the heart of that assertion brought down much wrath on Mr. Harper. It seems just about everyone but our blinkered leader understands that complex social factors are behind the women’s murders.

The launch Thursday of Canadians for a New Partnership is not specifically about getting to the bottom of those murders. Rather, those murders are simply one of far too many indicators of the crisis that rages among Aboriginal Canadians. But there is no reason why the new group can’t jump into this issue with both feet, maybe even play a catalytic role. I’m among those who believe we do not need a full-blown inquiry into the deaths of those women. We already know a great deal about the underlying causes of their murders, and indeed about the root causes of many of the tribulations of our native peoples. What we need, at long last, is the will to deal with them, which is what those who have signed up to the New Partnership surely must have.

Those who have so far signed on, both First Nations and other Canadians, have been in the trenches long enough to understand that what we need are concrete plans and the resources and will to implement those plans. Some kind of forum, perhaps initially a roundtable, could be the right place to hammer out priorities and actual, realistic plans of action. It’s this kind of setting that the premiers were recommending and that the federal government has now said it’s apparently prepared to join. We can’t yet be sure, but we can hope. Any serious strategy to confront the issues needs the active participation of all the players, which certainly includes the feds. So unrelenting pressure on Ottawa must continue, which is another role the New Partnership seems in a position to undertake. Maybe this brand new organization is exactly what Canada so desperately needs right now. Maybe they’re the right people at the right time helping to drive the agenda.

Perhaps the greatest challenge in dealing with Aboriginal issues is that all of the many factors responsible for the crisis need to be tackled simultaneously. This is very far from easy, but it’s the key to success. Poor schooling, poor health, substance abuse, violence, sexism, homelessness, alienation, hopelessness, marginalization — the list is long and each reinforces the others in a vicious circle. The fact is that many tiny First Nations communities can’t possibly provide jobs for their citizens. The fact is that many murders of Aboriginal people, women and men alike, are perpetrated by other Aboriginal people. The fact is that endless controversies over land continue.

And for every issue, big or small, it’s been hard to find consensus among First Nations. Yet why should we expect consensus on controversial issues among such a diverse population? Other Canadians disagree on everything under the sun; why should First Nations be different? But then without consensus, how do we move forward?

Only with the greatest good will and great trust can conundrums like these be tackled. And surely that means a real partnership, a genuine coalition, between First Nations and all Canadians. That’s what the New Partnership claims to offer. For the sake of the entire country, let’s hope it really does.


This article originally appeared in The Globe and Mail.



Gerry Caplan

Gerald Caplan has an MA in Canadian history and a Ph.D. in African history from the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London. He is an author, teacher, media commentator,...