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Nature's Law
Spiritual Life, Governance, Culture, Traditions, Resources, Context and Background
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Self Governance

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Citizenship as Individuals: Nations within the Nation State

For most of the years since the first Indian Act was passed in 1876 being Aboriginal or "Indian" was perceived to be incompatible with being a Canadian citizen. When the option of enfranchisement, trading Indian status for voting rights, failed to attract individuals, more coercive measures were enacted, enfranchising Indians if they lived away from their reserves, joined the military, obtained higher education, or, in the case of women, if they married a non-Indian. The object of policy, baldly stated in 1920 by Duncan Campbell Scott, Superintendent of Indian Affairs, was "to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic and there is no Indian question and no Indian Department". The same object was reflected in the 1969 White Paper which proposed, in the language of democracy, to make Indians "citizens like any other". The response of Aboriginal peoples to all these attempts to "break them into pieces" has been consistent resistance. Aboriginal proposals for a nation-to-nation relationship have proven problematic in attempted dialogue with governments and with Canadians at large. I want to spend a few minutes re-framing the discourse on nation identities.

My first point is that Aboriginal peoples have maintained our identities as nations since time immemorial. As nations we made treaties with one another, with European emissaries and the Crown in right of Canada. As nations we have successfully asserted our rights before Canadian courts to enjoy benefits from our traditional lands. In negotiations leading to the failed Charlottetown Accord on the Constitution we won reluctant acknowledgment from Canadian governments that Aboriginal self-government is an inherent right, not a privilege granted by other authority.

It seems to us that the continuing existence of Aboriginal nations is a political and legal reality as well as an historical fact. How that reality is accommodated in relations with the Canadian state and Canadian people is a matter for negotiation. I would simply say to you that we can’t begin a dialogue on building a future together if the conversation starts with a unilateral declaration "You are not who you say you are!"

My second point is that most of the thorny issues raised as impediments to nation-to-nation relations have been confronted and resolved in the treaty concluded in 1998 by the Nisga’a Nation, Canada and British Columbia. The treaty secures to the Nisga’a control of a portion of their traditional territory and a share of natural resources in other areas. It frees up vast areas of Nisga’a homelands for use and development by Canada, British Columbia and commercial interests. The treaty deals with Nisga’a legislative powers, government-to-government fiscal transfers, and taxation. I’m not proposing that the Nisga’a treaty should be a template for nation-to-nation relations, but it does provide an example of how a practical agreement can be put in place without undermining the integrity of the Canadian federation.

My final point on nation-to-nation relations points to the practical benefits to Aboriginal people and Canada of recognizing and accommodating the authority of Aboriginal nations. Stable Aboriginal governments with recognized jurisdiction, resources to implement decisions, and legitimacy in the eyes of citizens can achieve social and economic renewal more effectively than federal and provincial governments have been able to do. The evidence is in.

The Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development reported in 1992 on research in fifty projects over a five-year period. The project attempted to determine why economic ventures is some tribes succeed and others fail. The findings, confirmed in subsequent studies, were that effective governance is a critical factor in fostering economic development. The characteristics of effective government were identified as: 1) having power to make decisions about their own future; 2) exercising power through effective institutions; and 3) choosing economic policies and projects that fit with values and priorities, that is, the culture of the community.

The findings on economic development in American Indian tribes are mirrored in a World Bank study of 1998 that found a negative correlation between foreign aid and growth. The study raised doubts about the assumption that injections of capital from abroad would be the main way of achieving significant social and economic benefits in developing countries. Having effective government institutions at the community level, that support sound economic policies and inclusive social policy is far more influential than previously understood.

Recognizing nations and establishing institutions to implement the inherent right of self-government are important but they are not sufficient to enable Aboriginal people to thrive in Canada. The Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples pointed out that political gains will be hollow without the economic means to sustain them. The economic base for many Aboriginal nations is to be found in the potential for wealth standing on, lying under, or flowing through their traditional territories.

The United Nations Human Rights Committee took up the theme of lands and resources in its 1999 review of Canada’s compliance with the UN Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The Committee challenged Canada in these words:

With reference to the conclusion by RCAP that without a greater share of lands and resources institutions of aboriginal self-government will fail, the Committee emphasizes that the right to self-determination requires, inter alia, that all peoples must be able to freely dispose of their natural wealth and resources and that they may not be deprived of their own means of subsistence. The Committee recommends that decisive and urgent action be taken towards the full implementation of the RCAP recommendations on land and resource allocation.

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