Between the years of 1991 and 1996, a commission consisting of seven people, four of indigenous decent, conducted one of the most comprehensive and in depth studies on the indigenous peoples of Canada.
According to the Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada website, over a 178 day period 96 First Nations communities were surveyed. Upon its conclusion a 20,000 page report was produced and compiled into five different volumes containing information which addresses treaty, economic development, health, housing, a Métis perspective, and “the North.”
The commissioners’ findings are summed up in one single sentence in their section of the summary report.
“The main policy direction, pursued for more than 150 years, first by colonial then by the Canadian governments, has been wrong,” the commissioner’s statement reads.
In 20 years, how has the government taken steps to change policy direction?
Paul Chartrand, is retired law professor who participated in the commission. He said he was selected to represent the views of Métis people in western Canada.
He said the basic recommendations were not accepted in 1996. Chartrand said the government implemented what was “cost effective” for it to do so.
“At that time I think changing things to better policy for indigenous people was more of a political liability than anything else,” Chartrand said. “We want peace at the cheapest price. That was evident to me when I looked at five important newspapers across Canada the day after the release of the summary commission report.”
Chartrand said the backlash from the media pertained to the cost associated with the commission. Before any of the costs associated to the recommendations, the commission ran a budget of $58 million, which at the time was the most ever spent on such an undertaking.
Chartrand said the commission recommended investing $2 billion a year over 20 years into First Nations relations. He said the $40 billion invested would have put indigenous peoples into a “decent” life, and it would have made First Nations, for the most part, non-reliant on federal funding.
“It seemed like a big figure, but if you look at it now, and say 'hey, wait, 20 years we’d be done now and everything would be really good,'” Chartrand said.
He acknowledged the commission was not designed to be a blueprint for change within Aboriginal communities; it merely suggested changes which could be made.
“I should add that we were very clear we weren’t saying to the government or Aboriginal peoples ‘this is what you must do,’” Chartrand said. “We were saying 'if and when you decide you want to do something and you want to change things, have a look at this.'”
Chartrand chalks the lack of implementation up to a change in governance. The government which had called for the commission wasn’t elected in 1993.
Chartrand said even before the commission wrapped up, some of the recommendations were adopted. An idea for National Aboriginal Day was brought up during the commission, and it was formally introduced in 1996.
Chartrand said the courts took various recommendations and applied them to their processes.
“The advantage of a commission like that is that its reports can be considered by a court,” Chartrand said. “The courts, compared to political governments have paid quite a bit of attention [to the commission].”
Chartrand said political action such as civil disobedience, and public opinion are the only ways to bring the governments focus back to implementation of the commissions’ recommendations.
The Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples was brought about by Prime Minister Brian Mulroney after the Oka crisis in 1990. The Oka Mohawks were disputing the expansion of the Club de golf d’Oka, a private golf course which infringed on Mohawk territory and burial grounds. Clashes with law enforcement escalated, leaving one officer and one land protector dead.
The summary, and full Royal Commission and Aboriginal Peoples are available through the Indigenous and Northern Affairs website. The highlights can be viewed here.
The Assembly of First Nations created a report card for the 10-year anniversary of the commission. The document can be viewed here.
On Twitter: @BryanEneas
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