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 "Tragic Failure" of Ontario's Aboriginal Policies 

      Inhibiting Economic Development For All



By Randall White

Last week I read about the latest 102-page engineering report of flooding problems at the current Kashechewan First Nation location on James Bay.

It reminded me that the University of Guelph Professor Edward J. Hedican’s book on Ipperwash: The Tragic Failure of Canada’s Aboriginal Policy was short-listed this year for Ontario’s innovative Speaker’s Book Award. 

You might disagree with a few of Professor Hedicans’s particular arguments about Ipperwash. But who can deny that, in general, “tragic failure” is pretty much what we have in aboriginal policy today? 

It is also our fate to live in a time when the tragic failure of aboriginal policy in Canada since the Indian Act was first passed by parliament in 1876, is coming home to roost in all too many practical ways.

The recurrent saga of flooding and the Kashechewan First Nation is just one practical example of current aboriginal policy failure. 

Another example speaks to wider concerns.

A few weeks ago it seemed like good news for Ontario's broader economic development when Toronto-based Noront Resources Ltd. purchased prized "Ring of Fire" assets from Cleveland-based Cliffs Natural Resources Inc.

The Ring of Fire is an assortment of rich chromite and other mineral deposits in Northern Ontario, well north of current highway and rail corridors. In some circles at least, it is the holy grail of present-day hopes for a revival in the once dynamic Ontario resource economy.

The Noront-Cliffs deal might have helped move the Ring of Fire’s potential economic benefits for the Ontario people ahead. 

Yet only a few days after the news broke, headlines read, “Matawa Chiefs oppose Ring of Fire project sale” and “First Nations oppose Noront, Cliffs deal in Ring of Fire.” And according to Neskantaga Chief Peter Moonias, aboriginals should have had "a voice in the sale.” 

All this sat especially awkwardly beside comments that had been made only a few days before by the Noront-Cliffs deal’s Toronto-based financier, Franco-Nevada Corporation.

"There’s a very large resource there in the Ring of Fire ... We’re also seeing positive progress between the government and First Nations to move it forward.”

According to Ontario’s Northern Development and Mines Minister Michael Gravelle, the province was trying to strike a balance between developing the Ring of Fire fast enough and the need to "do it right" — i.e. with the support of First Nations.

Professor Hedican’s book on the tragic failure of Canadian aboriginal policy does make you wonder:  maybe it really is time to own up to this failure and start to rebuild, more or less from scratch.

Some will stress that the main constitutional responsibility for aboriginal policy rests with Ottawa. 

But the provinces' responsibilities for so much of ordinary life down on the ground, however, has also bred diverse provincial aboriginal policy regimes, with different results. 

According to the website, Saskatchewan was ranked as the world's best mining destination in 2014 by the Fraser Institute.

In Ontario, however, legislative moves have muddied the waters significantly.

"The new Mining Act amendments regarding First Nations consultation have resulted in complete incomprehensibility of rights on all sides," according to an Institute spokesperson.

Moreover, as Professor Hedican’s book also makes clear, the majority of Canadian aboriginal peoples today do not live on the old Indian Act reserves, but rather in urban areas — especially in Winnipeg, Edmonton, Vancouver, and Toronto. 

Yet the kind of “land-based” aboriginal policy that focuses on First Nations consultation in resource development projects is itself focused on the dwindling share of aboriginal Canadians who live on reserves.

Federal Treasury Board president Tony Clement believes the Ring of Fire will not take off in any big way until there are some big improvements in international mineral markets. And that may take a while.

If he is correct, there may be no great harm in the aboriginal reactions to the Noront-Cliffs deal that complicate and slow down economic development in the Ring of Fire. 

On the other hand, it makes sense as well for both provincial economic development policy and the Matawa First Nations to support the Ring of Fire activism of junior mining companies like Noront Resources Ltd (and its financier Franco-Nevada Corp.). 

But some of any eventual aboriginal benefits from Ring of Fire resource rents also ought to go to First Nations peoples living off reserve in urban areas, as well as to the dwindling reserve populations (and their leaders). 

As even Professor Hedican would seem to agree, exactly what kind of present-day aboriginal policy will help with these objectives remains something for further exploration at best. 

What does seem clear enough already is that the old failed policy rooted in the Indian Act of 1876 can no longer reliably advance any major aspect of the job that needs to be done today — neither for aboriginal and non-aboriginal Canadians alike. 



About Randall White

Randall White is a former senior policy advisor with the Ontario Ministry of Finance, and a former economist with the Ontario Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing. He is the author of Ontario 1610-1985: A Political and Economic History and Ontario Since 1985. He writes frequently about Ontario politics.
Posted date : April 07, 2015

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