Over the last 10 months, Justin Trudeau and his government have tried to radically shift how Canada approaches its relationship with Indigenous peoples. At the centre of their efforts have been promises to implement the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) and all 94 recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and to allocate billions of dollars to improve the socio-economic lives of Indigenous communities. He has also pledged to conduct relations with Indigenous governments on a nation-to-nation basis. Last week, the long-awaited inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women was launched.

At first, these announcements were greeted with enthusiasm, which ranged from cautious to exuberant. That enthusiasm, however, has started to wane, mainly because Trudeau and his ministers have hit a recurring brick wall in their efforts to reshape the relationship between Indigenous communities and the Crown. Several months after promising to implement UNDRIP, for instance, the Minister of Justice informed the Assembly of First Nations that her government was unable and unwilling to adopt it into Canadian law. This is a familiar refrain for Indigenous peoples in Canada. New politicians arrive in Ottawa hoping to implement transformative change, only to encounter the rigidity of the Canadian state and the constitutional order. The result is a never-ending cycle of hope, mistrust and then anger on the part of Indigenous communities toward the Crown and the rest of Canada.

While leaders and activists continually and fruitlessly chase windmills at the federal level, a quiet revolution has been brewing, slowly but steadily, at the local level. Over the past 30 years, Indigenous and local governments from across Canada have been reaching out to partner with one another on a variety of issues. Some of these partnerships have been relatively mundane, in areas such as the provision of municipal services (e.g., water, fire protection, and garbage removal) to Indigenous communities, while others have been more adventurous and substantial, including commitments to increase communication and joint management of recreational facilities.

All of these partnerships have benefited both communities in numerous ways. Increased communication and joint management arrangements have produced better government programs and more efficient service delivery. Municipalities and Indigenous communities can join forces to lobby senior levels of government for more local resources. Even the mundane partnerships have been fruitful. Two economists from the University of Guelph, for instance, have found that the presence of a water service agreement dramatically reduces the likelihood of an Indigenous community being subject to a boil water advisory. So while the Indigenous-non-Indigenous relationship remains difficult and seemingly intractable at the federal level, there is a glimmer of hope at the local level.

In our book, A Quiet Evolution: The Emergence of Indigenous-Local Intergovernmental Relations in Canada, we examine the range of factors that help spur and hinder cooperation between Indigenous and local governments. Institutions and the rules attached to decision-making, financial and human resources, actions taken by senior levels of governments, history and polarizing events, a sense of imperative, and community capital can all have a powerful effect on the nature of cooperation that emerges between communities.


By far, the most important factors are the latter two. A sense of imperative refers to whether there are issues the Indigenous and local governments jointly see as most pressing. In one of our case studies, the intergovernmental partnership revolved solely around the provision of municipal services because those were the only imperatives the communities shared. The Indigenous community also wanted to explore the idea of new transit routes and tourism facilities, but the municipality had different priorities, and so the relationship has not progressed any further. In contrast, two communities in Yukon shared a pressing interest in more recreation opportunities for their members, and so together they built and now administer a skateboard park, and they have developed other new recreational programs.

The second key factor from our study is community capital, which refers to the presence of a shared civic identity. In one of our case studies, the community members and leaders had strong relationships and connections with each other. Everyone was welcome to attend community events in both communities. People frequently visited each others’ communities for work and pleasure, and there was a sense that the communities shared an important bond with each other. In another case study, community members regularly moved between communities but there was no shared identity. Members saw their two communities as being distinct and different. The presence of a shared civic identity encourages Indigenous and local government leaders to seek out and at least explore the possibility of collaborative solutions.

Our book is a call to Canadians and policy-makers that they need to start paying more attention to what’s going on at the local level. While high-level negotiation and policy-making struggle against the weight of the Canadian state and the constitution, local-level partnerships are already proving to be a powerful and achievable way of furthering truth and reconciliation.

The time is ripe for federal, provincial, and territorial governments to shift their attention to policies that encourage cooperation at the local level. For instance, senior levels of government should create funding opportunities for infrastructure projects that privilege joint proposals from Indigenous and local governments. They should also provide funding for community groups and leaders to host events and create networks and connections with their Indigenous counterparts. These two small policy interventions, which focus on providing capacity and encouraging willingness, are just some of the ways to nudge communities toward cooperation.

Reconciliation is a long and treacherous road. It’s going to require action on multiple fronts. The days of turning solely to the federal, provincial, and territorial governments for justice are over. It’s time for Canadians and policy-makers to look to themselves and to the local level if they want to significantly improve their relationship with Indigenous peoples.

Photo: Sergey Nivens/Shutterstock.com


Do you have something to say about the article you just read? Be part of the Policy Options discussion, and send in your own submission. Here is a link on how to do it. | Souhaitez-vous réagir à cet article ? Joignez-vous aux débats d’Options politiques et soumettez-nous votre texte en suivant ces directives.

Christopher Alcantara
Christopher Alcantara is a professor of political science at Western University and co-author of Winning and Keeping Power in Canadian Politics.
Jen Nelles
Jen Nelles is a visiting associate professor of urban policy and planning at Hunter College, CUNY.

You are welcome to republish this Policy Options article online or in print periodicals, under a Creative Commons/No Derivatives licence.

Creative Commons License

More like this