"Canada is a test case for a grand notion — the notion that dissimilar peoples can share lands, resources, power and dreams while respecting and sustaining their differences. The story of Canada is the story of many such peoples, trying and failing and trying again, to live together in peace and harmony. But there cannot be peace or harmony unless there is justice. It was to help restore justice to the relationship between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people in Canada, and to propose practical solutions to stubborn problems, that the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (RCAP) was established." — Page IX, A Word From Commissioners
The quote above comes from a publication that is 150 pages long. Every Canadian should read it. This publication is called "People to People, Nation to Nation: Highlights from the Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples." If you want something less dense, there is a 51-page document that summarizes the report and its main recommendations. Included at the end is a nice breakdown of financial estimates for implementation of these recommendations.
The RCAP was established in 1991 and engaged in 178 days of public hearings, visiting 96 communities, commissioning research and consulting with experts. In 1996, the RCAP released a five volume report of findings and recommendations. The central purpose of the RCAP was to figure out what went wrong, how it went wrong, and what can be done to correct the problems identified. As the report asked, "What are the foundations of a fair and honourable relationship between the Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people of Canada?"
A lot of people seem to feel lost when it comes to the huge diversity of issues faced by Aboriginal peoples in Canada, and with the obviously dysfunctional system of relationships between indigenous peoples and the broader Canadian population. This is why I think the RCAP is so incredibly powerful and important. Much work has already been done to come up with practical solutions to identifiable problems. No wheels need be reinvented here.
The report notes that government policy toward natives has been wrong in the past, and still is. The RCAP was quite adamant about this when they released their final report in 1996, and not enough has changed since then to warrant a pat on the back for making things all better. This is a vital admission. Admitting that historical and current government policy towards indigenous peoples is wrong is no light thing. You will find strong resistance to this concept, particularly in the contemporary context. The Canadian government certainly does not accept this as true. The vast majority of Canadians probably do not accept that this is true.
Yes it is true; the Royal Commission was very clear on this, and since indigenous peoples are here to stay, it's important that everyone understand that.
Many Canadians are still clamouring for assimilation. The solutions are invariably, "Make them more like us! Private property! Get them out of isolated communities and into the cities with the rest of us! No special rights! No differences! Treat them the same!" and so on.
It's all been tried. Read Volume One of the RCAP Report, titled "Looking Forward, Looking Back." Pretty much every suggestion currently being given has been attempted before: relocation, teaching us to be 'Canadian' (residential schools), making us Canadian and getting us off the reserve (enfranchisement) etc, all with disastrous results and ultimately, a failure to actually assimilate us. In fact, as the RCAP details, these attempts are the main causes of the atrocious socio-economic situation indigenous peoples currently face in this country.
The status quo isn't working, and contrary to what you may believe, the status quo is colonialism. This is something many people have recognized over the years as they have examined the history and the current reality the relationship between indigenous peoples and Canada. A new direction is needed, and the Commission has some proposals worth closely considering as to how the relationship between indigenous peoples and other Canadians can be restructured.
Taiaiake Alfred and Tobold Rollo summarised Volume Two of the RCAP in a recent pamphlet, helping to clarify "the most crucial and immanently needed recommendations". First, Canada and Canadians must acknowledge Canada's past and present colonialism. Second, the inherent right of indigenous peoples to self-govern must be given real expression. Third, indigenous governments must have control over their own social, cultural, economic, housing, health, and educational services and the duty to consult must be replaced by federally structured shared jurisdiction. Fourth, funding must be provided to build this capacity after which such monies will cease to be needed. Fifth, all restrictions on treaty negotiations over rights to land and culture must be removed and replaced with a good faith approach.
This is what we mean by changing the relationship. You may be wondering how this is going to fix the problems indigenous communities face?
Volume Three of the RCAP is titled, "Gathering Strength." It deals with many of the issues that have been raised recently in the context of Attawapiskat, such as housing, education and health, and lays out specific ways in which indigenous control over these services can be organized to improve the delivery and efficacy of those services. The focus must be on moving from dependency to strength, which is something that it seems everyone living in Canada can agree on.
But it's Volume Five that lays out a 20-year plan to implement all the recommendations of the Commission. It also provides a cost/benefit analysis for all 444 recommendations for change proposed by the RCAP.
In the 16 years since the RCAP was released, almost nothing has been accomplished. The Assembly of First Nations released a Report Card 10 years after the RCAP, looking at the recommendations and pointing out that for example: the Department of Indian Affairs (now AANDC) had yet to be abolished, there has been no commitment to train 10,000 native professionals in heath and social services over 10 years, there is no First Nations jurisdiction over housing, no independent administrative tribunal for lands and treaties, and no sustained investment in meeting basic needs in FN communities. These are just some of the concrete recommendations that have not yet been followed through on.
The RCAP is a starting point for further investigation into the many issues faced by native peoples in Canada, and also as proof positive that practical solutions have been suggested.
That latter part is important, because people need to stop believing that there is no other way forward besides just assimilating us once and for all. It might seem so much simpler to just legislate us out of existence, make us all the same to satisfy liberal notions of equality, but it won't actually solve anything. The RCAP is a good place to start if you want to know why such attempts are doomed to fail, and what alternatives have been proposed.
Chelsea Vowel is Métis from the Plains Cree speaking community of Lac Ste. Anne, Alberta. She lives in Montreal. Her passions are: education, aboriginal law, the Cree language and Roller Derby. A version of this article was published on the author’s blog, âpihtawikosisân.