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                    Why Ontario Faces Massive Challenges In Indigenous Policy

 

By Randall White

Prime Minister Trudeau has linked the recent First Nations youth suicide crisis at Attawapiskat and elsewhere to “what he described as generational neglect of indigenous issues by successive past governments,” according to the Canadian Press.

His words hint vaguely at the provocative conclusion to Harold Innis’ legendary history of the fur trade in Canada: “We have not yet realized that the Indian and his culture were fundamental to the growth of Canadian institutions.”

Prime Minister Trudeau has also acknowledged that, in finally giving indigenous issues the attention they deserve, “the challenges are massive.”

Even so, as reported by the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network, Justice Minster Jody Wilson-Raybould has indicated that the Trudeau government “aims to complete the unfinished business of Confederation and replace the Indian Act with a reconciliation framework that would outlast the life of this administration.”

All this sounds like an impressive new commitment in Ottawa to sensible public policy on Canada’s First Peoples — at last.

Yet just how massive the challenges are is suggested by a quick look at the current indigenous landscape in Canada’s most populous province.

Data collection for the 2016 census has only just begun, but according to the 2011 census, more than 300,000 people in Statistics Canada’s “aboriginal identity population” lived in Ontario  — or 21.5% of the Canada-wide total (and they make up 2.4% of Ontario’s total population). 

This included more than 200,000 “First Nations” (or “Indian”) people and more than 86,000 mixed-race Métis. The First Nations population is further subdivided into people with and without “registered Indian status” under the out-dated federal Indian Act.

Traditionally, the federal government has only taken direct responsibility for First Nations with registered Indian status. A recent Supreme Court decision extends the federal government’s responsibility to Métis and non-status Indians, but it is not yet clear exactly what this means.

The many sub-sets and different jurisdictions of Canada's First Nations make policy making difficult.

For example, there has been a 12 per cent increase in "registered Indians" in Ontario from 2010 to 2014 to 203,000, as opposed to a 4.2 per cent increase in the general population.  Less than half (not quite 47 per cent) lived on 207 numbered reserves and crown land settlements. The other 53 per cent lived off reserve.

An Ontario First Nations map, published by the federal and provincial governments in 2011, divides the 207 reserve communities into seven broad cultural groups — Algonquin, Cree, Delaware, Haudenosaunee (Iroquois), Odawa, Ojibway (Chippewa), and Potawatomi.

The map also allocates the 207 communities among five different present-day political affiliations: Nishnawbe Aski Nation, Grand Council Treaty 3, Union of Ontario Indians, Association of Iroquois and Allied Indians, and Independent.

Another complication is that reserves are not units of governance. That is the responsibility of what the Indian Act calls "the band." Some bands have more than one reserve. And these governing units seem somewhat fluid at the moment (especially to a general reader). 

According to Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC), there were 126 bands in Ontario in 2010. INAC's website says the indigenous organization known as “Chiefs of Ontario” recognizes “133 First Nations communities located in Ontario.”

Another 2014 List of First Nations from INAC includes 139 communities. And still another INAC list reports 139 Registered Indian Population “Groups” in 2014 (only 22 of which had 1,000 or more people living on reserve.)

Meanwhile, INAC also notes “One in four Ontario First Nations is a small, remote community, accessible only by air year round, or by ice road in the winter.” On the other hand, “Major urban Aboriginal populations are in Thunder Bay, Sudbury, Sault Ste. Marie, Ottawa, and Toronto.”

What are we everyday voters to make of this often difficult and certainly complicated human experience? 

In the first place, both “Canada” and “Ontario” are indigenous words.  And as Harold Innis explained long ago, aboriginal people were crucial to the growth of the first Canadian resource economy of the fur trade, coast to coast to coast.

As Brian Slattery at the Osgoode Hall Law School urged in the 1990s: “Aboriginal peoples” have played “diverse roles ... in the formation of this country,” and “should be viewed ... as contributors to the evolution of our Constitution and most fundamental laws.”

Yet even with this kind of spiritual support from non-aboriginal Canadians, just a quick look at the indigenous landscape in Ontario today underlines what Prime Minister Trudeau has so aptly called the massive challenges of doing something sensible about Canada’s First Peoples, at last. 

That is no excuse for continuing to let the problems of the status quo just boil and bubble.

But it is certainly worth recognizing the massive challenges up front.  

 

 

 

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 26, 2016

View all of Randall White's columns
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