Fraser Forum

Before anything else, First Nations in Canada require economic empowerment

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Much ado was made recently about a British Columbia grand chief’s refusal to participate in a planned royal “reconciliation” ceremony with Prince William in Victoria.

The ceremony involved a staff and a ring and was meant to symbolize the relationship between the Crown, Canada, and B.C., but also indigenous peoples in Canada.

“In good conscience, I cannot participate in the Black Rod ceremony. The suffering in our communities is too great,” said Grand Chief Stewart Phillip in a news release.

Phillip also criticized the slow pace of change under the new Liberal government, which has been in power for more than a year now. “Reconciliation must move forward beyond this eloquent symbolic gesture,” he said.

The grand chief is correct. But, reconciliation itself must be placed in proper sequence. High-minded symbolic steps have their place, but they must not trump practical achievable improvements within indigenous communities.

With all due respect to the grand chief, relations between Canada and indigenous peoples must move beyond reconciliation itself and prioritize the concept of measurable indigenous wellbeing as the first goal.

While many indigenous leaders and thinkers define “reconciliation” differently and include both political and economic aspects in it, most of the time indigenous-Crown reconciliation in the Canadian context has to do with asserting constitutional and judicial rights, “decolonizing” history and culture, and the politics of recognition.

For example, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final report contained 94 recommendations that called for major changes in the way we teach indigenous history and culture in Canada, how we structure our health, child welfare, education and justice systems to accommodate indigenous realities, and how we protect indigenous languages and improve the media portrayal of indigenous peoples. It even included changing the current Oath of Citizenship and involved more apologies for past mistreatment. The closest it got to economic power was a call to enshrine the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples because it contains economic dimensions, but critics wisely argue that a strict interpretation of consent contained therein will stymie economic projects, not expand them

All of these things are very important, of course, but one could argue they should take a backseat to economically empowering indigenous communities to pull themselves out of poverty and improve key social and economic indicators in their communities. Thus, the acquisition of modern and better tools to improve their economies should be front and centre.

A further example of reconciliation involved the 2010 agreement between B.C. and the Haida Nation to change the Queen Charlotte Islands to Haida Gwaii.

So, it would seem that when discussing reconciliation we lean more heavily on political and cultural goals as opposed to economic ones emphasizing empowerment and eventual economic self-sufficiency.

First Nations involved, then, would focus less on an explicit rights-based agenda and much more on improving indigenous wellbeing in the here and now.

Greg Poelzer and Ken Coates, in their excellent 2015 book Treaty Peoples to Treaty Nations, showed how political rights-based approaches have granted self-government in many situations where it has failed and where community wellbeing has actually declined as a result of asserting aboriginal rights.

It’s also not fair to blame the federal Liberals for not delivering all their promises to indigenous communities in just over a year. This is a task that has eluded federal governments since the 19th century. Radically improving these communities will not result from keeping promises contained within one federal budget.

In the end, measures that deliver hope through increased employment and economic opportunities in First Nations reserves should be prioritized. That will attack the dysfunction on many indigenous communities that is rooted in dependency and hopelessness. One way of viewing it is through the psychological device of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Before we can achieve our higher, self-actualization needs, we must fulfill our basic physiological survival needs.

We must not be too eager to skip the necessary steps towards community self-improvement.


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