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Martin Papillon is an associate professor of political studies at the University of Ottawa.
So, they met . . . and promise to talk more. Prime Minister Stephen Harper spent last Friday afternoon discussing treaty rights, land claims and economic development with Assembly of First Nations representatives.
The problem is, despite the good will of those involved, we know the impact of these high level discussions will be limited. The reason is quite simple: Real substantive change in the relationship between First Nations and Canada will have to involve provincial governments.
Provinces, not the federal government, are responsible for the management of public lands, natural resources, education, health care and many other key policy areas at the core of First Nations demands. This won’t be easy. First Nations, many of whom have signed treaties with the Crown, are reluctant to engage in formal relations with provinces.
Treaties, they argue, established a nation-to-nation relationship with the Crown in Right of Canada, not the provinces. From their standpoint, provincial engagement is a denial of their unique status and a step toward assimilation into the broader framework of Canadian citizenship.
This view is reinforced by the broad constitutional responsibility for “Indians and land reserved for the Indians” bestowed to the federal government in 1867. This unique responsibility was reaffirmed in a recent court decision on the status of Métis.
To be fair, provinces have contributed to the general mistrust of First Nations. On the one hand, they are reluctant to provide basic programs and services for First Nations on and off reserves, arguing that it is up to the federal government to live up to its constitutional responsibility.
On the other hand, provincial governments are eager to expand their authority on traditional aboriginal lands to facilitate natural resources extraction development. Provinces, the saying goes, want nothing to do with First Nations and other aboriginal peoples, but everything to do with their lands.
This situation is compounded by the lack of leadership by the federal government in terms of assuming its own constitutional responsibilities and treaty commitments. The striking passivity of the current government in the face of the growing crisis is barely surprising. Governance by stealth is nothing new in federal aboriginal policy.
It may be time for everyone to take a deep breath, sit down and talk. The federal-provincial division in responsibilities over First Nations made sense from a colonial perspective 100 years ago. In the era of aboriginal rights and self-determination, it doesn’t anymore.
For the rest of this column, please go to the Toronto Star website: http://www.thestar.com/opinion/editorialopinion/article/1316095–provinces-need-to-be-at-negotiating-table-with-natives