Michael Hudson | June 8, 2018
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission tells us that reconciliation not only requires apologies, reparations, the relearning of Canada’s national history, and public commemoration. It also requires real social, political, and economic change — in essence, defining a new place for Canada’s Indigenous peoples.
Symbolic gestures are not unimportant. For example, the prime minister’s recent statement exonerating six B.C. First Nations chiefs accused of murdering white colonists more than 150 years ago in pre-Confederation British Columbia.
But, achieving true structural change will require Canada’s governments to meaningfully treat Indigenous people as partners in our national success. Are we ready as a country? B.C.’s experience over the past 15 years sadly suggests the answer is “no”.
In a study prepared for the Institute for Research on Public Policy, I analyzed hundreds of bilateral agreements signed by B.C. with over 200 Indigenous nations since the early 2000s. While the agreements are positive steps, they are not the structural change called for by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. They also fail to meet the province’s stated goal of fully implementing the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s vision of real change reflects emerging domestic and international norms which provide governments with a check list of “to dos” for new relations with Indigenous peoples. Top of the list for structural change are two issues — the governance and sharing the wealth of Canada.
Indigenous nations must not only be allowed to govern their own affairs, but deserve a meaningful voice in the governance of their traditional lands. They are entitled to share the benefits that flow from the development of traditional lands, but that should mean a fair portion of the general revenues generated on those lands.
Successful Indigenous nations like the Nisga’a, the Tsawwassen, the Haida, the Squamish and the Musqueam have done so because federal and provincial governments took halting and usually begrudging steps toward those goals. But most B.C. Indigenous nations are nowhere near that destination. And even nations that have hard-won gains rarely say that they have everything needed for modern success.
The previous B.C. Liberal government characterized its new relationship with Indigenous nations as “based on respect, recognition and accommodation of Indigenous title and rights; respect for each other’s laws and responsibilities; and for the reconciliation of Indigenous and Crown titles and jurisdictions.”
The reality reflected in bilateral agreements falls short of those lofty aims. The province promised to respect its legal duty to consult, but since the ultimate power to decide rests with Victoria, there is no truly shared decision making between equals. While the provincial government says that the benefits of B.C.’s rich economy are shared, the reality is that Indigenous nations get only tiny amounts of resource revenues from their traditional territories.
B.C.’s approach has focused on fostering good relations, fulfilling legal duties to consult and making qualified commitments to future action on issues such as revenue sharing. However, B.C. has not comprehensively recognized or implemented the rights of Indigenous nations in ways consistent with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s vision of a new Canada. To date, there are few indications that the NDP government will take a significantly different approach from the Liberals.
Creative thinking is needed to deliver structural change in the province’s governance, economy and social order. Equally importantly, all governments — Indigenous and non-Indigenous — need to start an open, honest conversation with British Columbians about how much structural change is needed if we want our children to look back to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission as a turning point in our relations.
Michael Hudson is a former associate assistant deputy minister of Aboriginal Affairs at Justice Canada and special advisor to the prime minister of Australia on Indigenous issues. He led the federal government’s Task Force on Constitutional Relations with Indigenous Nations in 2016-17. He now serves as strategic advisor to a range of governments, Indigenous nations and industries.