By Deb Steel
Miles Richardson of the Haida Nation wanted a ball park figure.
He had heard the commitment from the federal government to the nation-to-nation relationship, and said that was all well and good, but the commitment needed some “oomph” behind it.
He was speaking to a gathering of Indigenous leaders and government representatives at the Nation-to-Nation National Summit held today in Ottawa.
That oomph required legislative underpinnings and a financial commitment, not only to close the gap between Indigenous communities and Canadian society, but to rebuild Indigenous Nations altogether.
Richardson took the opportunity to pose a question to former Ontario premier Bob Rae and Federal Auditor General Michael Furguson who had just completed their presentations on the topic of the path forward to achieving “a genuine relationship based on recognition and mutual respect” between Canada and Indigenous peoples.
Richardson included former Prime Minister Paul Martin, who was sitting in the audience, in the ask.
How much is it going to take? How much money does the government have to invest “to show seriousness in the federal commitment” to prove that commitment isn’t just “hot air?”
“Give us a ball park,” Richardson said.
“It’s a multi-billion dollar, multi-year commitment,” answered Rae, and not just for the federal government. “Where is the jurisdiction now? Who is ‘the Crown’? Well, the Crown is every bit as much the provincial governments as the federal government,” he said.
“This is going to be… unprecedented.”
“We are talking about the whole of the relationship and the transformation that needs to happen,” said Rae, while remembering that a good portion of the Aboriginal population no longer lives on reserve.
“They live in cities, so we are going to be talking about a transformation of our cities, as well as a transformation in the communities.”
“So, what is it? It’s tens of billions of dollars over a generation that has to happen. And that’s what we are talking about.”
The problem, said Rae, is that he has not heard any clear articulation from governments that there is an understanding of the enormity of what is to be undertaken. They have not been clear enough with themselves, or their fellow Canadians, he said.
This is not some process that is going to be about a number of apologies given and conferences held, Rae explained.
“If it’s going to be transformational, it’s going to be, by current standards, extremely expensive. And we need to understand that this is the full implication of our 500-year history together. This is where we now have come. This is the point we’ve reached now.
“We’re not talking anymore about handshakes. We’re not talking only about protocols or rituals. We’re talking real governance relationship changes, and none of that will happen if there isn’t a financial underpinning.”
People haven’t been prepared to have that discussion in a serious way, Rae said.
“That’s the next place we have to go.”
Harold Calla, chair of the First Nations Financial Management Board, chimed in, saying the discussions that are taking place between the government and the Assembly of First Nations and others about a new fiscal relationship must tackle the issues of bridging the gap to overcome current challenges, and sustaining an improved circumstance, he said.
“And that takes revenues, cash flows… When we talk about nation to nation, it’s about the exercise of jurisdiction. And I think, that’s got to become part of the dialogue. I know Finance, Treasury Board and others get a bit nervous by it.”
“They’re not nervous, Harold. They’re terrified by it,” responded Rae. “They absolutely do not want to talk about it.”
He said we get focused on INAC (Indian and Northern Affairs), but the real people that need to be focused on are the ones in Finance.
He said changing the relationship means “significant shifting of power and resources to people who have not had that power and resources for a long, long time.”
It’s ambitious, but that’s the full implication of “the reckoning we are talking about”, said Rae.
Auditor General Ferguson said “whatever number any of us would come up with, the only thing we can tell you about it is it’s going to be wrong.”
The number is one thing, but it’s the outcomes that must be stated, he said. “What is it that’s trying to be accomplished?”
Former Prime Minister Paul Martin rose to add his two cents to the discussion. He had famously committed $8 billion in the Kelowna Accord (2005) to closing the gap between First Nations and Canadian society through investments in education, health, employment and living condition before his government was replaced by a Harper government in 2006.
“The fact of the matter is, Bob, there’s also a responsibility—obviously there is a huge responsibility on the government—but there is also a responsibility on the First Nations, and we haven’t talked about that much here.”
He said the nations had to come to terms with how many nations there actually are. National Chief Perry Bellegarde had told the group earlier in the morning that there were 58 Nations. Some have said 40, and others 85, but most people believe there are more than 600 First Nations across the country.
“I know there’s a huge debate of the number,” Martin said.
Though a number is going to be difficult to come up with, he said, it has real implications on the amount of a financial commitment the government will have to make.
The basis upon which to start has to be “the inherent right,” said Martin. “And then it has to be the inherent right for who?”
Rae agreed with Martin.
“The worst thing the Indian Act has done, among many other things… is to confuse these very tiny units with ‘the nation’ or with ‘nation to nation’ and within the First Nations communities there has to be a really serious discussion about what are the effective units of governance that are actually going to take us forward?”
He said there is a lot of evidence to suggest that what we have right now is not workable. He said there is not the confidence to give X Nation or Y Nation money that is not going to produce the outcomes being sought.
“There is a huge discussion that needs to happen” and it’s going to be a challenge, said Rae.
“We don’t have the effective units of governance in place to do the nation-to-nation work that needs to be done.”
He acknowledges that he’s “just another old white guy saying this” and he’s prepared to be dismissed because of it, but in his opinion that’s one of the big challenges out there to moving forward.