Ensuring the Path to Aboriginal Self-Government

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In recent years, there has been something close to a national awakening regarding Canada’s relationship with its indigenous population.  An awakening that recognizes the centrality of living with our fellow indigenous citizens on a nation-to-nations basis, with all of the rights and responsibilities therein.  Long before this transformation within our national consciousness, indigenous organizations, political leaders and individual Canadians have called for a reestablishment and reorganization of this centuries-old relationship.

In the early 1990s, the federal government committed to recognizing Section 35 of the Constitution Act, 1982 as an existing inherent right to Aboriginal Self-Government.  The structures and processes for achieving this right are what needed to be clarified and formalized.  In 1996, the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples issued its five-volume final report which contained many recommendations on Aboriginal governance and relations between Aboriginal and other governments in Canada.  Two years later, the federal government issued Gathering Strength, its response to the RCAP Report, in which it committed to restructure the relationship.

The Standing Senate Committee on Aboriginal Peoples stepped up to undertake a follow-up study examining the state of the key issues identified in the RCAP Report.

Between November 1998 and June 1999, over 100 witnesses appeared before the committee.  Numerous written submissions were also received and incorporated into the testimony.  Overall, a wide cross-section of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal individuals, communities and institutions had the opportunity to publicly state their views.  Witnesses were asked to comment on four broad matters:

  • New structural relationships required between Aboriginal peoples, their governments and other governments in Canada;
  • Principles for and approaches to Aboriginal self-government;
  • Implementing Aboriginal Self-Government; and;
  • Strategies for financing and supporting Aboriginal governments and institutions so they are effective, affordable and meet the needs of Aboriginal Peoples.In February 2000, the Committee issued its final report entitled, Forging New Relationships: Aboriginal Governance in Canada.  Among the report’s five substantial recommendations, we called for the establishment of a new Office of Aboriginal Relations, located outside of the then Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development.  This would be realized through federal legislation enabling the federal government to assume responsibilities for negotiating and implementing relationships with all Aboriginal peoples.Upon publication of our report, the Committee received considerable feedback from both indigenous and non-indigenous circles demonstrating that our work was contributing significantly in terms of substantive findings while also enriching the discourse surrounding indigenous self-government processes and structures.  Indeed, shortly after submission of the report, the Committee would be tasked with reviewing Bill C-9, an Act to give effect to the Nisga’a Final Agreement, a self-government agreement for the Nisga’a First Nation of British Columbia.  Many of the observations gathered within the report would be applied toward the review of this agreement.  The course of the next decade and a half would see 15 comprehensive land claim and self-government agreements signed between indigenous entities and the federal government.  The process will continue well into the 21st century with increased awareness of the rights and responsibilities of all parties.
  • We also recommended that the Government of Canada establish through legislation a Treaty and Aboriginal Rights Implementations Review Commission, which would serve as an independent oversight body for all parties in the relationship and which would report to Parliament.  The commission would carry out three primary functions: to serve as a public reporting and educational body;  to conduct an investigative role, comprising of an ombudsman and compliance monitoring functions; and; to provide a facilitation role.  Another recommendation was to broaden awareness of indigenous issues throughout our country’s legal system.  We recommended that “judges, senior officials and lawyers working at all levels of the judiciary in Canada be given the opportunity for cross-cultural training and education to enhance their awareness of Aboriginal and treaty rights, developments in Aboriginal and treaty law, as well as Aboriginal perspectives, cultures and traditions, and legal issues facing Aboriginal peoples.”
  • Over the course of our hearings, I am very proud to have been part of the first formal Round Table between Canada’s Senators and Aboriginal Leaders.  For the very first time in the Senate of Canada’s history, a Round Table was held between Senate Committee members and the leadership of national Aboriginal organizations, elders and traditional leaders.  This provided for the direct engagement and close participation of Aboriginal leaders in the Committee’s deliberations, an innovation that enriched not only the Committee’s work, but that of the entire institution.

In recent years, there has been something close to a national awakening regarding Canada’s relationship with its indigenous population. An awakening that recognizes the centrality of living with our fellow indigenous citizens on a nation-to-nations basis, with all of the rights and responsibilities therein. Long before this transformation within our national consciousness, indigenous organizations, political leaders and individual Canadians have called for a reestablishment and reorganization of this centuries-old relationship.

In the early 1990s, the federal government committed to recognizing Section 35 of the Constitution Act, 1982 as an existing inherent right to Aboriginal Self-Government. The structures and processes for achieving this right are what needed to be clarified and formalized. In 1996, the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples issued its five-volume final report which contained many recommendations on Aboriginal governance and relations between Aboriginal and other governments in Canada. Two years later, the federal government issued Gathering Strength, its response to the RCAP Report, in which it committed to restructure the relationship.

The Standing Senate Committee on Aboriginal Peoples stepped up to undertake a follow-up study examining the state of the key issues identified in the RCAP Report.

Between November 1998 and June 1999, over 100 witnesses appeared before the committee. Numerous written submissions were also received and incorporated into the testimony. Overall, a wide cross-section of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal individuals, communities and institutions had the opportunity to publicly state their views. Witnesses were asked to comment on four broad matters:

  • New structural relationships required between Aboriginal peoples, their governments and other governments in Canada;
  • Principles for and approaches to Aboriginal self-government;
  • Implementing Aboriginal Self-Government; and;
  • Strategies for financing and supporting Aboriginal governments and institutions so they are effective, affordable and meet the needs of Aboriginal Peoples.

Over the course of our hearings, I am very proud to have been part of the first formal Round Table between Canada’s Senators and Aboriginal Leaders. For the very first time in the Senate of Canada’s history, a Round Table was held between Senate Committee members and the leadership of national Aboriginal organizations, elders and traditional leaders. This provided for the direct engagement and close participation of Aboriginal leaders in the Committee’s deliberations, an innovation that enriched not only the Committee’s work, but that of the entire institution.

In February 2000, the Committee issued its final report entitled, Forging New Relationships: Aboriginal Governance in Canada. Among the report’s five substantial recommendations, we called for the establishment of a new Office of Aboriginal Relations, located outside of the then Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development. This would be realized through federal legislation enabling the federal government to assume responsibilities for negotiating and implementing relationships with all Aboriginal peoples.

We also recommended that the Government of Canada establish through legislation a Treaty and Aboriginal Rights Implementations Review Commission, which would serve as an independent oversight body for all parties in the relationship and which would report to Parliament. The commission would carry out three primary functions: to serve as a public reporting and educational body; to conduct an investigative role, comprising of an ombudsman and compliance monitoring functions; and; to provide a facilitation role. Another recommendation was to broaden awareness of indigenous issues throughout our country’s legal system. We recommended that “judges, senior officials and lawyers working at all levels of the judiciary in Canada be given the opportunity for cross-cultural training and education to enhance their awareness of Aboriginal and treaty rights, developments in Aboriginal and treaty law, as well as Aboriginal perspectives, cultures and traditions, and legal issues facing Aboriginal peoples.”

Upon publication of our report, the Committee received considerable feedback from both indigenous and non-indigenous circles demonstrating that our work was contributing significantly in terms of substantive findings while also enriching the discourse surrounding indigenous self-government processes and structures. Indeed, shortly after submission of the report, the Committee would be tasked with reviewing Bill C-9, an Act to give effect to the Nisga’a Final Agreement, a self-government agreement for the Nisga’a First Nation of British Columbia. Many of the observations gathered within the report would be applied toward the review of this agreement. The course of the next decade and a half would see 15 comprehensive land claim and self-government agreements signed between indigenous entities and the federal government. The process will continue well into the 21st century with increased awareness of the rights and responsibilities of all parties.