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Aboriginal Self-Government in Canada Essay

Recent reports indicate that drinking water used by Aborigines on reservations is unsafe. This brings close attention to the poor economic and social conditions of these First Nation communities. Unsafe drinking water contributes to the deplorable living conditions faced by the Aboriginal community. Such conditions are believed to be the worst among different communities that live in Canada. Confined to reservations, most of the First Nation communities have been undermined in their efforts to seek self-identification and self-governance. As a result, such communities have been forced to continue relying heavily on provincial and federal governments for social and infrastructure assistance. After struggling for hundreds of years, Aboriginal people have seen tremendous improvements in terms of achieving recognition and self-governance.

Canada`s Aboriginal Policy

This paper will look at the main phases which Canada`s Aboriginal policy has gone through and discuss the impact of particular phases on Aboriginal people. By doing so, a discussion will be made on how First Nations assert their existing right to self-government. There exist several barriers to achieving self-governance. Bearing this in mind, the paper will discuss the possible requirements for achieving self-governance in Canada. A point that is worth noting is that differences exist among Aboriginal populations and First Nation communities. This means that the priorities set aside by one community in their approach to achieving self-governance may differ from those set by a different community. The paper offers a limited discussion of Aboriginal population that lives in urban settings. This is because the majority of them are situated on reservations.

Having had to survive under poor living conditions as compared to the rest of Canadian population, Aboriginal community needs to be granted self-governance so as to have an effective representation in decision making, flourish in terms of economic development and reduce financial dependence on federal and provincial governments.

Initial contact with Europeans

For thousands of years before the arrival of European explorers, Aboriginal people lived on Turtle Island, in what is now Canada. Utilizing available resources, they inhabited the land and taught themselves how to survive the harsh climate and unfavorable landscape. First Nations not only learned to survive in these harsh conditions but also organized themselves in autonomous groups that were rich in traditions and customs. Aboriginal people had a traditional form of governance which was headed by chiefs and elders whose role was to supervise trade activities as well as maintain justice. Though uncivilized, they had a different view of the world from Europeans and had set their own norms and values. Different Aboriginal communities collaborated in peaceful coexistence. It was this collaboration that contributed to the establishment of early settlements. Aboriginals shared various ideas and activities such as farming and hunting techniques. They also approached this relationship with respect as they shared the gifts given to them by the Creator.

Europeans later came to Aboriginal homeland, and French and British were the first to exert their influence on First Nations as they sought to recruit Aboriginal warriors to their military teams. In 1664, the British Crown signed the Treaty of Albany with the Haudenosaunee Confederacy. First Nations exchanged gifts with the British Crown during the signing of the treaty and, according to Brennan et al. (2005), the relationship should be replicated in the modern world. Though the British might have had a strategic relation to First Nations during the treaty-signing, the relation confirms the Aboriginal sense of statesmanship and nationhood, factors which are vital to the assertion of Aboriginal sovereignty.

Royal Proclamation

According to the Royal Proclamation of 1763 issued by King George III, First Nation communities were not to be disturbed on their lands. Initially, the land that belonged to the Aborigines could only be obtained through Crown purchase or making treaties with First Nations. This demonstrates the inherent right of Aboriginal people in regard to land ownership. The Royal Proclamation showed the existence of protection of Aboriginal territory from foreign encroachment. It also displayed the Crown’s legal responsibility towards Aboriginal communities who were far superior in numbers (Nettheim, Meyers & Craig, 2002).

The current refusal of Canada to recognize the international character of First Nations does not seem to be an urgent issue. However, this research affirms that since Aboriginal self-government appears to be sustainable and the possibility of overcoming social issues is imminent, First Nations may start to pursue sovereign international trade relations. If the shared goal among Aboriginal people and First Nation communities is self-sufficient, the two groups may reap the benefits of foreign investments and international trade relations. First Nations should not be limited to local commercial activities when better opportunities appear across the country’s borders.

Following the British North America Act of 1867 and the enactment of the Indian Act, a shift in Aboriginal policy was noted whereby the Aboriginal community moved away from addressing contact with settlers for a period of colonial assimilation. The process of colonial assimilation was necessitated by the fear that Aborigines did not show any signs of abandoning their way of life. Under the Indian Act, officials from the federal government were given jurisdiction over the Aboriginal community and the Aboriginal policy termed First Nation communities as incompetent. After witnessing successive federal governments, the Aboriginal policy has started treating Aboriginal people with different degrees of support and malice (McMillan & Yellowhorn, 2004). There have also been alleged efforts of giving peculiar privileges to Aboriginal people such as specific exemptions from the rule of law (Warry, 1998). However, such supports are not enough to allow them gain meaningful self-governance.

The federal government was engaged in the policies of Aboriginal people in the 1960s. Such policies, as mentioned, were geared towards the civilization and colonial assimilation of Aboriginal communities. In 1966, there were reports of large socioeconomic disparities between the ideas of the federal government and the real situations experienced by Aboriginal people. In response to this report, the federal government introduced a document known as the White Paper. The purpose of the document was to nullify treaties made by Aboriginal people. The Department of Indian Affairs and the Indian Act would also be abolished and the legal responsibility, which the federal government had over Aboriginal people, offloaded (Russell, 2000).

The rationale behind the White Paper was that the treatment given to the Aboriginal community seemed to be discriminatory, and they had suffered social and economic disadvantages as a result. Though the document was meant to promote equality under liberal ideas, there was no clear recognition of Aboriginal people. Additionally, the White Paper did not put forward a form of the process through which the Aboriginal community could assert political and economic self-determination. The proposals included in the White Paper had the ultimate effect of uniting First Nation leaders, and this led to a change in the relations between Aboriginal people and Canada. The relations were further influenced by the decision made by the Supreme Court of Canada in the Calder case.

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After the Supreme Court’s decision and the notable failure of assimilation, the federal government decided to reconsider its colonial policy towards First Nations. First Nations have since then resulted in signing treaties with the federal government and organizing land claim negotiations. However, a few barriers exist that hamper these negotiations. For instance, the negotiations have had a negative effect on Aboriginal communities as resources are directed towards negotiations while other priorities are ignored. First Nations are also afflicted by financial burdens hence find it difficult to carry out such negotiations with the federal government.

The 1982 Constitution Act

The Constitutional Act of 1982 had a notable influence on Aboriginal policy. In a particular, Section 35 confirmed that Aboriginal people are partners in Confederation. The entrenchment of Section 35 has an effect of protecting the Aboriginal rights but also limits their elaboration. The Aboriginal community welcomed the entrenchment of Section 35, but there’s still debate on whether their right to self-governance should be included. Section 35 did not favor Aboriginal people only. The entrenchment provided protection of treaties signed in Canada and also recognized the distinctiveness and uniqueness of Aboriginal people. Prior to the enactment of Section 35, the federal government had no objection in dismantling Aboriginal communities and redefining their identity and basic interests. All this changed after the enactment. Section 35 presented a new deal whereby the former constitution was replaced with a platform for negotiations with Aboriginal representatives.

First Nations have made valiant efforts to assert pressure on the federal government to recognize Aboriginal self-government for decades. In 1983, the Penner Report, a significant parliamentary committee on self-governance was constituted to examine some of the factors that affected the development of self-governance among Aboriginal nations. The Report which recognized the unique status of Aboriginal people suggested that the federal government should create a new relationship with Indian First Nations. The Report also emphasized on the need for the federal government to recognize Aboriginal self-governance. The main difference between the White Paper and the Penner Report was the latter’s inclusion of leadership of Aboriginal people. Decisions in court cases related to Aboriginal people explained the federal government’s legal responsibility towards First Nations. However, a need arises to have a clear statement in the constitution in regard to Aboriginal self-government. As Russell (2000) puts it, a clear recognition of Aboriginal self-government in the constitution will make them achieve their goals.

The Royal Commission on the First Nations

The Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples was founded by the then Prime Minister Mulroney with the intention of making contributions to the Canada Round of constitutional discussions. Meanwhile, the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (RCAP) adopted much of the Penner Report and recognized Aboriginal inherent right to self-government. Among the demands of the RCAP was the recognition of the Aboriginal community as one body, which was grounded in a common heritage. The RCAP also acknowledged that one formula of self-government was not sufficient to satisfy the needs of every Aboriginal community or meet the requirements for successful relations with the federal and provincial governments. In recent years, Aboriginal policy has changed its approach to First Nations to a more plural one.

In 1995, the Liberal government recognized the inherent right of Aboriginal people to have self-governance. This was identified as an existing right under Section 35 of the constitution which was influenced by RCAP’s recommendations. To add to that, the federal policy on the recognition of Aboriginal self-government provided a report that consultations would be carried out with Aboriginal representatives to come up with suitable instruments that recognize Aboriginal self-governments. Later that year, the federal government responded by initiating a program that would strengthen Aboriginal economic development as well as expand their institutional capacity. Though these approaches were commendable, the government is still seen to exert authority upon the Aboriginal community. In their efforts to manage the affairs of their community, First Nations continue to encounter bureaucracy. This greatly limits the ability of Aboriginal people to govern themselves and manage their domestic affairs. Brownlie further laments that the system is too rigid, bureaucratic and more expensive than before, and money that is included in the Indian Affairs fails to reach Aboriginal people (2003).

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Ten-year commitment to meet Aboriginal challenges

Apart from the problem of self-governance, Aboriginal people continue to experience a myriad of challenges. To respond to these challenges, Aboriginal leaders and First Ministers met in 2005 and launched a 10-year plan with an aim of improving the quality of life of First Nation communities. The plan did not focus much on ensuring that Aboriginal people achieve self-governance. However, it emphasized on ensuring that those communities made steps towards becoming self-sufficient. One of the main agendas outlined in the report was a measure to ensure that the factors leading to high poverty levels among Aboriginal people were identified and addressed. By doing so, the Aboriginal community would contribute to the prosperity of Canada and benefit from that prosperity. In recent years, there appears to be a shift in implementing the 10-year plan. An annual review report has been initialized, which aims at establishing a forum for Aboriginal, provincial and federal representatives. All parties seem to be working together to ensure that the policy aimed at improving social and economic levels of life is successfully implemented. The plan also recognizes and respects the inherent right to self-government among First Nations.

The existing right to self-government

Aboriginal self-government remains to be one of the most prominent and debatable issues facing Canada at the moment. Though the RCAP and federal policy continue to show a high level of willingness to the aspect of self-governance among First Nations, it would not be safe to say that the road to achieving self-governance has been and will continue to be smooth. There is plenty of optimism towards the 10-year plan. However, sovereignty talks always have unwilling stakeholders who are not keen on ensuring that Aboriginal people attain self-rule. Some of the reasons they give are high costs involved in implementing such a policy. They are also pessimistic about the results of decentralization of power once Aboriginal people achieve self-governance. For some Aboriginal people, the right to self-governance was given to them by their forefathers but has been denied by the federal government. According to Russell (2000), granting self-governance to Aboriginal people will go a long way in eliminating many of the current problems that they are facing.

There’s no doubt that the process of attaining self-governance is not easy and requires partnership from various stakeholders. However, a research conducted in the United States asserts that self-governance is the only way to ensure that Aboriginal people achieve economic development. This shows that the need for economic development among Aboriginal people is a shared goal. The federal government needs to understand that, although a large amount of funds is directed towards Aboriginal communities, those resources have done little to ensure that the communities break free from their perceived state of financial dependence. Most debates on Aboriginal self-government tend to ask why it is necessary. However, it is crucial to ask sometimes those against self-governance why they have maintained their stand and maybe an understanding can be reached that will satisfy all stakeholders. By doing so, a healthy debate may yield possible solutions to the implementation of sustainable Aboriginal self-government.

The possibility of achieving self-government

The treaty rights of the Aboriginal people of Canada are recognized under Section 35 of the Constitution Act, 1982 (Christie, 2007). The recognition of inherent self-government rights of Aboriginal people by Canadian authorities is arguable. According to Christie, it is essential to point out that Aboriginal people are not demanding gifts from the Crown (2007). They are neither asking for grants nor exceptional treatment. Instead, the Aboriginal community wishes for the government to recognize something that Aboriginal people already possess – self-governance. They claim that the self-governance, which they yearn for, has been impeded by the Crown for generations. Aboriginal people would have the following arguments to try and persuade the government to grant them their wish. Firstly, they have already demonstrated that they can control membership and citizenship matters that relate to their community. They have also had the right to regulate the activities that take place on their territory. In addition, Aboriginal people have always been able to regulate harmful activities carried out by members of their community or on their land (Christie, 2007).

Aboriginal nations must push the debate to the level it should be. It should not only occur at a physical level but also dwell on identity and autonomy. This is the only way in which Aboriginal people will achieve any form of self-government. Aboriginal people argue that self-government rights are vital for their preservation, their culture and traditions as well as their ability to continue living on the land of their ancestors. Granting self-governing rights will also enable Aboriginal people project how they will be able to survive and maintain their identities. However, though First Nations continue to display valiant efforts in their attempts to attain self-governance, the Canadian government appears to have a different perspective. Such a perspective, if made legal, will render self-government rights of Aboriginal people ‘hollow and lifeless’ (Christie, 2007, p. 15).

This paper has reviewed the major phases of Aboriginal policy and the implications of those phases. A discussion was carried out on the shifts in the political culture as determinants of policy and a context that reflects how Aboriginal people assert that they have their inherent right to self-government. The paper gave a view of the requirements needed for First Nations to attain a sustainable self-government. This was done with a keen reference to tribal government experience in the United States although caution was taken against using a single approach to seek for self-governance. It is clear from the perspectives discussed in the paper that there is optimism in terms of Aboriginal communities in achieving their goals. Recent developments have brought together the Aboriginal community and the federal government in a collaborative effort the main aim of which is to improve the quality of life of Aboriginal people.

Unlike past efforts, this time the federal government appears to be committed to achieving the objectives of the ten-year plan. The seriousness of the federal government is imminent in that it has put in place annual review meetings to assess the progress of the plan. One might say with uncertainty that Aboriginal people will eventually gain self-governance. However, most people would agree that First Nations deserve the right to control the decisions regarding their community. By understanding the complex nature of self-governance, leaders will be able to make efforts of consulting with other stakeholders and to develop policies that will promote equality for all. No task is simple, and no solution is guaranteed. However, if effective leadership is infused with fresh ideas about how to implement self-governance, Aboriginal people will eventually gain self-recognition and sustainable self-government.

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