Chrétien Promises to Help Aboriginals

Jean CHRÉTIEN has always looked back at his six years as minister of INDIAN affairs with an equal measure of fondness and something resembling regret. He has called his work from 1968 to 1974 among the most satisfying of his career.

Chrétien Promises to Help Aboriginals

Jean CHRÉTIEN has always looked back at his six years as minister of INDIAN affairs with an equal measure of fondness and something resembling regret. He has called his work from 1968 to 1974 among the most satisfying of his career. The affinity he developed for Canada's original inhabitants was instrumental in his and Aline's decision to adopt a native boy, whom they named Michel, from an Inuvik orphanage in 1971. But Chrétien has also lamented that his efforts to lift Canada's most underprivileged peoples out of Third World conditions have shown few concrete results three decades later. His one bold attempt to change how Ottawa traditionally dealt with native Canadians - the 1969 White Paper on "Indian Policy" - was so spectacularly repudiated by Indian leaders as a denial of their special status in Canada that it took him years to overcome their suspicions about his underlying motives.

With last week's Speech from the Throne, Chrétien signalled strongly he hasn't given up on the project. The 14-page document of government intentions made clear that the Prime Minister, who has announced he will step down in February, 2004, wants to go out with a bang. He intends to ratify the Kyoto accord on greenhouse gases, reform health care, put in place a long-term investment plan aimed at alleviating child poverty, and establish a 10-year infrastructure program for cities, among other legacy-polishing initiatives.

But no topic in the blueprint for the remainder of Chrétien's mandate gets as much ink as the plans for Canada's 1.4 million Aboriginals. Rather than devote a section to native issues, as past Throne Speeches have done, the document outlines initiatives affecting Aboriginals on almost every page. "This was sending a clear message that this is one of the government's top priorities," Indian Affairs Minister Robert Nault told Maclean's, "and that it has to be a government-wide initiative." The pledges include on- and off-reserve programs dealing with education, health care, housing, clean water and job creation, all designed to "close the gap in life chances between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Canadians."

As telling of the government's resolve is the determination to reintroduce legislation tabled in June dealing with native governance. The bill, which has drawn almost as much fire as the White Paper did in its day, seeks to dramatically alter the way bands are run. It would establish democratic rules on the choosing of chiefs and councils, and ways of removing them. And in an attempt to clean up scandals involving the way bands disperse the more than $7 billion Ottawa spends on Aboriginals each year, the legislation requires the adoption of new accountability codes, including annual budgets and independently audited financial statements.

Is it doable? Matthew Coon Come, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, sat in the visitors' gallery listening attentively as Gov. Gen. Adrienne CLARKSON listed a series of specific policies that will require the government to spend more on natives. He hopes most will come to fruition. But what struck Coon Come most was the government's unmistakable resolve not to go into debt. With the economy slowing and Ottawa's revenues dwindling, he wonders where the money for native programs will come from. One answer is through reallocation of resources. But taking funds already earmarked for elsewhere is always a difficult task, and he notes there are many other demands on those limited resources. For instance, the government is also pledging to spend more on health care and cities.

Of course, the centrepiece of the government's agenda for Canada's First Nations - the governance act - entails little spending. Here Chrétien faces a different kind of hurdle. Many native leaders have pronounced their fundamental opposition to the legislation. The problem, explains Coon Come, is that the bill continues the paternalistic nature of the Indian Act. Besides, he adds, changing the way bands are governed won't solve what truly ails Indian communities, such as the lack of adequate lands and resources to climb out of the cycle of poverty and helplessness. Even chiefs like Ed John of the Tl'azt'en Nation in north-central British Columbia, who concede that native bands must be more transparent and accountable, question the government's continued hegemony. "This legislation," John says, "does not recognize the inherent right to self-government that is contained in the Canadian Constitution."

Nault seems as bullheaded about proceeding with the legislation as critical native chiefs are to thwart it. He denies the bill is a top-down initiative being imposed on natives, pointing out it follows an extensive consultation process, involving thousands of Aboriginals. The department also conducted the first national polling on reserve lands. "The bill incorporates many of the things natives said they want," he maintains. Moreover, Nault adds that Aboriginal leaders have another opportunity to affect the bill when it moves to the committee stage, likely this fall.

The governance act is hardly a panacea for historic inequities, Nault acknowledges. And it's not as groundbreaking as Chrétien's doomed White Paper. On that, he and Coon Come agree. But Nault, whose Kenora-Rainy River riding contains 51 Aboriginal communities, sees the governance act as a beneficial, if limited, first step. "I firmly believe if we build in the institutions of good governance, we can close the gap and have First Nations young people and citizens participate in our economy successfully," he says.

With the clock ticking, Chrétien is, by all accounts, eager to forge ahead on the bill. An aide to the Prime Minister claims it will "definitely" pass before Chrétien retires. The aide adds, "This is not a legacy issue - he doesn't think that way - but he is saying, 'I've got 16 months to focus on what's really important to Canada so this is what we have to do.' " But as a lame duck leader, the Prime Minister knows his ability to control the government's agenda diminishes exponentially the closer he gets to his appointed retirement date. And unplanned events are bound to pull his agenda off course, as happened last week when yet another of the ethics scandals that have plagued the government emerged. The Canadian Alliance attacked Solicitor General Lawrence MacAulay for awarding his friend Everett Roche's firm an untendered $100,000 contract.

Meanwhile, Paul Martin is already campaigning full-time, outlining his own vision for the future, and some of Chrétien's top cabinet ministers are champing at the bit to join the former finance minister on the hustings. Last week's Throne Speech was intended to arrest Chrétien's slipping hold on power, if only briefly, and to make one last push to tackle unfinished business. And given the ignominious fate met by his White Paper 33 years ago, perhaps nothing in the speech would be as personally gratifying for Chrétien as a new deal for a people he long ago took into his heart.

Maclean's October 14, 2002