One of the fundamental policy challenges for 2020 is how to create a Canada that includes indigenous people as a highly valued essential fundamental aspect of the Canadian reality. That is the kind of Canada in which indigenous peoples can realize our full potential by making significant contributions to our own communities, to Canada and to the world. Canada will be the richer for it.

Canada’s history of European settlement began with the promise of diverse peoples sharing knowledge and resources. As the colonial enterprise progressed, however, that promise was replaced with attitudes of superiority and exclusion, resulting in the marginalization of the indigenous population and the appropriation of the resources on which their well-being depended. These attitudes were boldly stated in the 1969 White Paper issued by then Indian Affairs minister Jean Chrétien, which called for all indigenous people to “become Canadians.”

If we are to create a Canada that includes indigenous peoples, we must dismantle the costly, dysfunctional, unproductive and firmly institutionalized relationship that holds indigenous peoples as well as Canada in its inflexible grip. We must replace it with a healthy and mutually beneficial one.

Addressing this challenge will require Canadians to accept that the country’s fastest-growing demographic group is indigenous peoples, who provide the answer to our looming labour shortage. Canadians must also appreciate their own identity as citizens of a nation with a strong indigenous history, an indigenous identity. The name of the country itself is indigenous, and so are the names “Toronto,” “Saskatchewan” and “Winnipeg.” This awareness is growing in some parts of the nation, notably on the Prairies, where the indigenous population is so visible and where past divisive approaches to outstanding issues related to treaty rights have been replaced with talk of all Canadians needing to see ourselves as treaty people.

In 1982, I was named an ex-officio member of the Parlimentary Task Force on Indian Self-Government. Our report, sometimes called the Penner Report in honour of its chair, Keith Penner, was written after a year’s travel to gather testimony, and it was unanimously accepted by the House of Commons. Indian Self-Government in Canada explained that indigenous people and other Canadians have very different and conflicting views of history, which has affected our relationship in very negative ways. Canadians adopted an official version of history that featured “discoverers” and “explorers” of a land already well known to the productive, cultured, spiritual, intelligent civilizations whose lands and waters were being “discovered.” It is as though nothing happened in North America until Europeans arrived.

Accepting Canada’s indigenous reality means acknowledging that indigenous peoples had strong networks of trade, knowledge of the land and waters, and that as peoples they were free and self-sustaining. We all must realize that today’s dependency is the result of a hundred years of near total government control.

And then there are the treaties. As the Penner Report pointed out, indigenous people view treaties as affirmations of sovereignty and rights, and as agreements that allow settlement in certain areas. This is quite different from the official view that treaties extinguished rights.

Unfortunately, implementation of the task force’s recommendations never happened. It is no wonder then that Canadians, indoctrinated by the “discovery version of history,” would find it difficult to grasp the rich potential of a 21st century relationship with indigenous people based on partnership.

In 1996 came a second report, that of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples. It set out an account “of the relationship between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people that is a central facet of Canada’s heritage, of the distortion of that relationship over time, of the terrible consequences of distortion for Aboriginal people — loss of lands, power, and self-respect.” It said the relationship “has long been troubled” and was showing signs of becoming even more troubled.

The commission hoped then, as I do now, that indigenous and non-indigenous people alike will take the urgently needed, decisive steps to repair the damage to the relationship and go forward “on a new footing of mutual recognition and respect, sharing, and responsibility.” This will mean freeing indigenous peoples from dependence on the institutions, constraints and resources of governments. This will require, as the commission realized, justice and generosity. This will also require restoration of fair measures of land, resources and power. In return will come the restoration of self-respect and self-reliance to replace the anger, despair and conflict generated by the current situation.

The royal commission proposed a 20-year agenda for change. It did not endorse “tinkering with the Indian Act” or launching shiny new programs. It proposed, as I do, a fundamental change in the relationship, an embracing of Canada’s indigenous reality, to liberate the exciting potential for our mutual future.

That was 16 years ago. The 20-year agenda has yet to be set in action, despite the warnings of the Royal Bank of Canada shortly after the commission reported. In a publication titled “The Costs of Doing Nothing,” the bank prophetically pointed out that although the costs of implementing the royal commission’s report would be significant, the costs of not implementing them would be even higher.

Yet, with a few minor exceptions, the royal commission report remains, almost two decades later, unimplemented, little known and rarely discussed.

It is now 2012. In eight years, it will be 2020. It is time to begin re-examining the Penner Report, to revisit the royal commission report and to remember “The Cost of Doing Nothing.”

There are many fronts on which we must make strong courageous moves. The one in which I am involved is education and training — the process through which the rich potential of First Nations, Inuit and Métis youth is realized. Without dramatic improvement in the educational achievement of indigenous students, the probability of success for other initiatives is reduced considerably. While many other initiatives must be taken, education is the essential element.

Our children and youth are potential change agents. If our current generation is supported so they can become achievers, they will change their circumstances, their families, their communities. The entire country will be enriched.

From my current work at Indspire (formerly the National Aboriginal Achievement Foundation), I know that indigenous youth are motivated by their own role models, particularly those indigenous women, men and other youth who have achieved success and yet remain secure in their own identities, comfortable and confident in their cultures and historic roots. Our youth have had their abilities so severely devalued by the views held by the dominant population. Still today, myths and stereotypes lead them to believe they are inferior. The more role models we create and celebrate to validate our true potential, the greater will be the number of youth who are liberated and empowered to follow their example.

While one can invoke arguments of morality and charity to justify ensuring that indigenous youth receive an education of as high a quality as that received by non-indigenous youth, promoting parity in this generation will be based solely on economic benefits. Canada’s overall population of youth is shrinking, while that of the First Nations is growing more rapidly than any other demographic group. It is essential to Canada’s economic health that an educated, trained indigenous labour force be available to deal with Canada’s impending labour shortages. As much attention needs to be focused on indigenous labour as is given to immigrant labour. It also makes no sense to have so many hundreds of thousands of people maintained in an increasingly expensive multigenerational state of dependency that is so destructive to health and well-being.

Without dramatic improvement in the educational achievement of indigenous students, the probability of success for other initiatives is reduced considerably. While many other initiatives must be taken, education is the essential element.

Tens of thousands of indigenous children entered first grade this year. If they and the hundreds of thousands of indigenous students already in school are to be ready to become workers and entrepreneursinthe2020s, a significant investment in their education must be made now. The vast majority of Canadian elementary school students graduate from high school. However, according to the 2006 census, only about 53 percent of indigenous students, often less, are able to obtain this most basic requirement. Today, 28 percent of Canadian students go on to receive post-secondary education, whereas only about 8 percent of indigenous students do the same.

We must take action to ensure that educational achievement rates for indigenous children climb to at least the level currently enjoyed by other Canadian youth. Every indigenous child must have access to an education that is simultaneously supportive of identity, culture and language while providing the knowledge and skills to contribute to the larger society; an education that offers access to high school credentials that are on a par with those offered by Canadian high schools generally.

The inner workings of government
Keep track of who’s doing what to get federal policy made. In The Functionary.
The Functionary
Our newsletter about the public service. Nominated for a Digital Publishing Award.

Our teachers and schools need a massive infusion of resources to bring them up to ordinary current standards. They need a virtual network through which they can have the support of colleagues and experts and where they can share ideas and best practices appropriate to our communities. Such a network would link student with student, parent with parent, leader with leader, and so on. I also know from our work at Indspire about the importance of indigenous youth having their identity validated and valued in the curriculum, in the values they find in their educational experience.

We must ensure that every indigenous youth who wishes to seek postsecondary or training credentials has access to the resources to do so. Postsecondary and training institutions must take steps to create welcoming, friendly and supportive environments to support the transition, cultural changes and adjustments faced by indigenous students.

All these things must be done simultaneously, and Canada is fully capable of this. We are talking about 3 percent of the population! However, Statistics Canada says that percentage will almost double by 2031.

Canada cannot afford to squander this opportunity. Unless we make a serious and sustained investment in indigenous education — on- and off-reserve — we will continue to witness the shameful and tragic results of which we are all only too painfully aware.

We will not have a productive partnership for 2020 unless Canadians want it to happen. Yes, political leadership is helpful, even necessary — but it is not enough. Canadians need to see the benefits of creating space in Canada for indigenous peoples to realize their full potential. This is not a game to watch from the sidelines. Passivity instead of action will be a recipe for the status quo to remain the status quo.

The Canadian “mainstream” needs to see these changes not as acts of charity, but rather as acts in their own self-interest. A respectful, mutually beneficial relationship that involves a balanced sharing of resources will make it possible for Canada to benefit from indigenous knowledge about environmental stewardship, traditional healing and conflict resolution. Canada will be able to more fully realize its own potential when others around us find it in their interest to create such a space.

At some point, with the vital support of educated indigenous youth, our agents of change will be better able to realign the relationship of First Peoples with the rest of Canada. While much remains to be done, I am encouraged by the doors that have recently opened to a productive relationship that was exemplified by the apology for the residential school experience offered by the Prime Minister of Canada. Land settlements and agreements between governments and First Nations also point to future possibilities. As Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin put it for the Supreme Court of Canada in the Haida Nation case, the task is to reconcile “the sovereignty of the First Nations by virtue of their prior occupation” with “the assumed sovereignty of the Crown.” The Court added that “this promise is realized and sovereignty claims reconciled through the process of honourable negotiation.”

Those overdue negotiations can occur at any time, the sooner the better! In the meantime, so many practical initiatives can be taken for the benefit of all Canadians. But please, can everyone just refrain from another round of statements of commitment and tired rhetoric; avoid still more memoranda of understanding and agreements to reach an agreement. What we must have instead is resolute action. The only acceptable new “process” must focus on how to implement that action.

Change will require serious, sustained resources. The good news is that if we do it right, these resources will be an investment rather than an expense. Indeed, the Centre for the Study of Living Standards concluded in 2010 that if we closed the education and employment achievement gap between indigenous and other Canadians, we would save more than $115 billion over 15 years while adding more than $401 billion to Canada’s GDP.

Youth as well as governments and all Canadians have every right to insist that the serious investments I advocate are tied to deliverables. We need to invest in people, organizations and institutions that will give our children and youth solid, meaningful and measurable results. We must hold ourselves accountable, be ruthless in our evaluation of progress, and be open and accountable in our reporting of results.

Over the years we have been tempted to focus on one theme or another, which has often been seen as the “big solution” to the “big problem.” There is a flurry of activity, and after a time interest fades, particularly when the big problem doesn’t seem to have been solved. I caution those who believe the answer lies in simply extending the reach of mainstream charitable programs on the assumption that if only indigenous people had a program or opportunity that worked so well in other “needy” circumstances, this would be the answer.

We must not be afraid to take a different approach. One theme of all the reports I have lived through — Hawthorn, the 1969 White Paper, the Penner report, the royal commission, the recent Assembly of First Nations/ Indian Affairs joint report, and the Report of the Standing Senate Committee on Aboriginal Peoples on Education — is that indigenous people require an enlightened approach, one that validates and respects the distinct and diverse identity of indigenous peoples in Canada, one that values indigenous ways of knowing and the systemic approaches this knowledge informs. One that is above all indigenous-led.

Look at the role models: the James Bay Cree and their development since the 1970s, the rebuilding of the Nisga’a and the realization of the promise of Nunavut. When indigenous communities are once again in control of their own futures, where there is serious and sustained investment, we can demonstrate that when the doors open for indigenous people to succeed as indigenous people, Canada as a whole is the better.

All sectors in Canada have come to the conclusion that success is achievable and economically beneficial where there is the commitment to make it happen. Ask many of the natural resource development companies that are partnering with First Nations, Inuit and Métis communities, that are creating opportunities for education, training and jobs. In the arts we also see a new acceptance of indigenous influence — for example, in Rideau Hall, in the National Gallery of Canada, through the gifts of Douglas Cardinal’s architecture. So much more is waiting to happen.

If we do not together create the transformation that is at once our imperative and our opportunity, Canada will not be able to afford the status quo we will face in 2020 — will not be able to afford it economically or socially. If it is going to change, change must start now. From my work with Indspire, I have seen so much success that I no longer need to rely upon hope. I have full confidence that we can do this in our lifetime, in this generation.

As is true of many indigenous peoples, my own people, the Mowhawks of the Six Nations of the Grand River Territory, are instructed that in living our lives and making our decisions for the future, we must focus our attention not on ourselves, not on our children or even our grandchildren, but rather on the Seventh Generation — those yet to be born, children whose faces are still coming towards us.

The Seventh Generation are our great-grandchildren’s great-grandchildren. The Seventh Generation is not a figurative abstraction: it consists of real human beings not yet born — the people who will call us their ancestors. They have every right to expect that we will realize the opportunity to put our minds together to improve life for our children.

The responsibility to live a life focused on the Seventh Generation has been a powerful force in my own life. I commend it to you for your own consideration. This focus has taught me that I have both the opportunity and responsibility to create change. It has taught me that I do not live alone in this world: we walk with our past, our present and our common future. It has taught me to seek a longer view whenever I have felt the push of impatience or the immobilization of despair.

If we think of the Seventh Generation, we will be pushed to go beyond the mark, to go in new directions, to find opportunities that don’t appear when we are thinking of the short term. The Seventh Generation is with us in spirit. They are our future, cheering us on. I am sure they will look back at each of us, their ancestors, and be grateful for our efforts to create a better future. In our lifetime. In this generation. By 2020.

Photo: Shutterstock

Roberta Jamieson
Roberta Jamieson is president and CEO of Indspire, an Indigenous led national charity dedicated to supporting improved educational attainment at all levels for Indigenous Peoples across Canada.

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

Creative Commons License