Indigenous policy a catastrophic failure

By Ken Coates,
Munk Senior Fellow,
Macdonald -Laurier Institute,
Courtesy of Troy Media.

Canada’s first National Day of Truth and Reconciliation fell far short of expectations. The continuing pandemic did not help, nor did the unevenness of the holiday/commemoration across the country.
As expected, most Canadians who had a day off used it as personal time. Only a small number took the opportunity to engage with Indigenous peoples or to contemplate either the residential school experience or the long history of ineffective government policy.
But the day should not pass without challenging the country to recalibrate its relationship with Indigenous peoples. What Canadians can agree on is that our national Indigenous policy has been a catastrophic failure.
Canada has a long-standing practice of punting Indigenous policy failures to the next government or future generations. The costs of failure in government policy fall disproportionately on Indigenous peoples, who are forced to live with the consequences of inaction or bad decisions. That there are more Indigenous children in various forms of government care than there were in the residential schools is just the most obvious sign of the abject failure of Indigenous policy.
The Indigenous crises emerged out of well-known realities: residential schools, social difficulties in families and communities, extreme poverty in many Indigenous settlements, overcrowded housing, inadequate social service officers and counsellors, and a deep pattern of state intervention in the lives of Indigenous peoples.
Indigenous people spoke up about the shortcomings of government social services, just as they criticized the residential schools, the Indian Act, the Department of Indian Affairs bureaucracy, and many other aspects of Indigenous policy over the years. The government did not respond, and the non-Indigenous population made the improvement of Indigenous services a low priority.
In the 1960s, Indigenous people took to the courts to demand better responses. And in painful and expensive step after step, they won greater recognition both of their rights and of the failure of government policy over decades.
This country has never done an adequate accounting of two essential elements. The first is the full cost to Indigenous peoples by the systematic shortcomings of government action. There is a tendency to focus on critical symptoms, like the Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, rather than on the broad and underlying causes and consequences.
Imagine the accumulated costs of generations of enforced poverty and welfare dependency, the cultural losses associated with the suppression of language and tradition, the destruction of traditional skills, the undermining of Indigenous knowledge and the marginalization of First Nations, Métis and Inuit people within Canada.
Add to these challenges associated intensely personal acts of racial discrimination and the more subtle but equally harmful processes of systemic discrimination. These are, collectively, the direct costs to Indigenous peoples from the actions of the dominant society and their governments.
The second accounting exercise, sure to get more attention, is the cost in real money of compensating Indigenous peoples for past misdeeds and poor policy. Forget the majority of the federal government’s budget for Indigenous affairs. Most of this money goes for services available to other Canadians. All Canadians get health care; Ottawa pays for First Nations and Inuit costs. Ditto for social services, fire protection, basic infrastructure, local governance. Only a portion of the budget for Indigenous Services Canada and Crown-Indigenous Relations is above and beyond the cost of providing such core support, albeit at a lower and less effective level than that provided to other Canadians.
Let’s talk hard money paid in recent years to Indigenous people in Canada. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission has articulated the collective cost of the residential school movement on Indigenous peoples; the almost $5 billion in direct compensation to former students fell far short of addressing the full cost to Indigenous communities across the country. The Human Rights Commission ruling will, unless challenged in court yet again, add several billions to that list.
Add the numerous hundred million settlements of Indigenous land claims, specific claims, and compensation for failures in government policies.
In 2021, the Clearwater First Nations settled a long-outstanding claim for recognition of the “cows and plows” provision of Treaty 8, signed in 1899. The final settlement provided the First Nation was $122.3 million, with each of the First Nations’ 2,600 members receiving a one-time payout of $44,000.
This is far from the end of it. Legal challenges against the government over the alienation of Indigenous lands in southern Ontario could bring costs in the hundreds of billions of dollars.
First Nations in the Prairie Provinces have unresolved grievances about the allocation of natural resources and associated revenue to the provincial governments in the Natural Resources Transfer Act of 1930.
TThe demands for compensation are not close to being finished. Wait until the legitimate claims against the problems experienced in the provincial and territorial education systems, systematic problems in public health care, grotesque failures in the policing, judicial and prison systems are converted from grievances to legal challenges and, in many instances, court decisions in favour of Indigenous peoples.
Resolving historical grievances is a difficult process, balancing collective and individual rights and compensation. In some instances, this is avoidable. Individual students suffered abuse in the residential schools; direct payments were an essential, albeit partial, means of compensation.
But personal payments do not address multi-generational and community-wide impacts.
Having declared that Sept. 30 would be Canada’s first National Day of Truth Reconciliation, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau opted to spend the day in private contemplation of the waves off Tofino, B.C. That Trudeau deserves the occasional vacation is beyond question. That he decided to ignore his call to national engagement with Indigenous peoples cast a pall over the first holiday devoted exclusively to reconciliation.
Trudeau, who devoted much political rhetoric to the importance of reconciliation, has turned a day of reflection into a private vacation, making a mockery of something designed to be truly meaningful.
It is easy to understand why Indigenous peoples, including the several hundreds who gathered on Parliament Hill, have difficulty taking non-Indigenous Canadians at their word.

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