If Ottawa wants to transform its relationship with Indigenous peoples, it must show a better understanding of their way of life and worldview.

The suicide crisis among youth in Attawapiskat has cast a glaring light on the desperate living conditions in many isolated northern reserve communities. The media asks the question “Why?,” and the now familiar list of causes is recited by pundits – colonialism, residential schools, failed government programs, poor housing, unsafe drinking water, and inadequate or non-existent community infrastructure and services. All these factors and more have resulted in a wide gulf between mainstream life in Canada and the lives of many in First Nations communities.

Our recently elected government in Ottawa has made a commitment to develop a new relationship with Indigenous peoples.  Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stated in the mandate letters to cabinet ministers, “No relationship is more important to me and to Canada than the one with Indigenous Peoples.” His government has pledged $8.4 billion for “transformational change” to address factors such as the substandard living conditions, the rampant poverty and the educational deficit in First Nation communities. But spending a lot of public money alone has not produced many positive outcomes in the past, so what basis is there for higher hopes in the future?

We need to base the new relationship with First Nations on three things: the land, education, and community-based governance.

First, the land is a fundamental underpinning of Indigenous cultures. Indigenous peoples conceive of the land as an interconnected whole that encompasses the air, water, rock, soils and all sustaining life. The Judeo-Christian belief in man’s dominance over nature, of human superiority over other living beings, is alien to Aboriginal peoples. Rather, Aboriginal peoples believe the Creator placed them on the land, and they have a sacred trust to respect and sustain all life. They have developed reciprocal relationships with the plants, fish and wild animals on which they have depended over the millennia for their survival and livelihoods. The land is populated with spirits and beings that animate the parts of the landscape, such as water and rock, which in Western thinking are viewed as lifeless. The stories and teachings of elders are filled with these spirits and beings, which are part of people’s lives.

The Cree concept of Os chi nay win represents the idea that what a person does to nature will come back to that person. If a person treats nature and the land badly, it will have consequences for that person, because he/she has not respected the Creator’s gifts. The Anishinaabe cultural tradition of Ji-ganawendamang Gidakiiminaan is a collection of beliefs, values, knowledge and practices that guide Anishinaabeg in their interaction with the land and with each other, respecting and expressing reverence for all creation.  These examples, drawn from the complex, intricate cosmologies of the Cree and Ojibwe, are typical of a worldview that is shared by all Canadian Indigenous peoples. Their holistic and reciprocal relationships with the natural world explain First Nations’ apprehensions about the development of installations such as tourist lodges, forestry operations, mines, hydro dams and oil pipelines on their traditional territories.

Those traditional territories are not simply the open access commons of Garrett Hardin’s tragedy, where individual users of a shared public space act only in their self-interest leading to its depletion and ultimate destruction. Rather, traditional territories of First Nations are imbued with norms of access, use, conservation and sharing of resources that have been negotiated and mutually respected over successive generations.  Contemporary public policies and commercial enterprises that promote resource developments need to fully respect and accommodate the traditional and contemporary cultural practices, governance arrangements and needs of First Nations on traditional territories. A new relationship with First Nations demands new approaches in natural-resources development and management featuring shared decision-making in the planning, implementation and environmental monitoring of resource developments. Mutual respect, honourable negotiations, cooperation and the sharing of training, employment and monetary benefits should characterize the entire operational life of commercial resource developments on traditional lands.

Traditional territories of First Nations are imbued with norms of access, use, conservation and sharing of resources that have been negotiated and mutually respected over successive generations.

Such an approach would have two important results. First, environmental-impact assessment and protection in resource development will be improved when traditional ecological knowledge is integrated with the best available scientific data; and second, First Nations will be better able to reconcile support for and productive participation in commercial resource development with traditional stewardship of the land.

First Nations peoples’ ability to live successfully in harsh boreal environments over the millennia; the elders’ wisdom and the knowledge and skills they have imparted over successive generations; as well as their accomplishments in fields such as the arts, medicine, law, business and politics, are evidence of their great cultural resilience and intellectual capacity to overcome and move beyond past injustices. Yet, indicators consistently show that formal educational attainment in First Nations communities is markedly lower than that in the general Canadian population. A report by the pro-literacy organization ArrowMight said that 45 percent of Aboriginal adults do not have any educational qualifications, more than double the rate in the non-Aboriginal population. Fifty percent of First Nations people leave secondary school without any qualifications and 50 percent of First Nations people live on reserves, where there are twice as many high-school dropouts than off-reserve.

Even as increasing numbers of First Nations people attain the post-secondary technical and professional skills required to succeed in the modern workplace, the gap persists, because the general population is achieving these credentials at a faster rate, unencumbered as they are by debilitating factors like poor living conditions, poverty and remoteness, which are present in many northern reserves. In order to address this educational deficit, innovative approaches are needed that enable First Nations young people to retain their cultural and community connections when they attend distant high schools, colleges and universities. The University of Manitoba’s Indigenous Student Centre is an example of an organization that aims to create an educational environment on campus that affirms Aboriginal cultures, values, languages, history and way of life. Students should be enabled to return to their communities on summer work projects or internships, where they can participate in cultural activities such as hunting and fishing camps, and reconnect with elders, their native languages and the land.

Finally, a new relationship with First Nations must be built on recognizing, supporting and funding the community-based governance institutions of the individual First Nations. Chiefs and councils are obvious examples of community decision-making institutions that should be recognized and strengthened by the other levels of government. Other organizations such as community-resource management boards can be vital for effective participation in natural resources management, especially where project partnerships with commercial enterprises and other governments are contemplated. It cannot be based on a “one size fits all” assumption — each community has its own geography, history, community needs and cultural practices. Prime Minister Trudeau and his government consistently emphasize that First Nations and the various levels of government need to work together to bring about transformative change. Community-based governance is critical — it is at the community level that good governance principles  such as citizen participation, responsive and accountable decision-making by elected leaders, and fair and equitable sharing of resources and benefits are best achieved.

In some First Nations there is a lack of capacity to govern effectively, which needs to be addressed, and there are documented cases of corruption, nepotism and financial misappropriation on some reserves. Community-based governance will not be a panacea; there must be also be sound practices. The federal, provincial and territorial governments must support these practices, as they meet their fiduciary responsibilities and honour the Royal Proclamation of 1783, the constitutional protections of Aboriginal and treaty rights, and recent rulings of the Supreme Court of Canada. Moreover, Canada has now adopted the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which affirms that states must obtain First Nations’ free and informed consent for any resource developments on their traditional territories.

Canada is deservedly seen as being a caring, inclusive nation, and we are proud of our cultural diversity and international reputation as a progressive democracy. Yet, most Canadians are deeply troubled by the plight of many First Nation communities, and by shocking reports of young people committing suicide and of murdered and missing young Aboriginal women.

The Trudeau government has set the right tone to bring about true reconciliation and transformational change, and thus build a new relationship with First Nations. Now the government has to embark on real partnerships with First Nations and other levels of government to spend what is necessary to accomplish these goals. Focusing on the land, education and good community-based governance will be critical if it is to succeed.

Photo: Sergei Bachlakov / Shutterstock.com


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