Culture Shock: The Landscape of Aboriginal Self-Government

Our time in Yellowknife was packed with all kinds of learning opportunities – and I can definitely say that in that week I learned so much that I’m still wrapping my head around it – but my only genuine culture shock reverberated around this one earthquake of a fact: people there take aboriginal issues seriously. Very seriously. That’s not to say that we don’t in Ontario but the culture here and elsewhere in Canada seems to revolve around ensuring that aboriginal groups cause as little inconvenience as possible and that should some catastrophic event arise, it is dealt with swiftly. It’s hard to place blame for this mentality given that aboriginals compose less than 4% of Canada’s population and about 2% of Ontario’s. Certainly there are enough issues demanding attention and resources in our province and nation without attending to aboriginal issues which are resource intensive and politically divisive. But it’s equally hard to ignore that in the grand scheme of things this particular subset of Canadians does not tend to see its interests represented in government policy no matter who is in power. Not so in the Northwest Territories. Half of the population of the NWT is aboriginal and the same is true of more than half of its MLAs. Consequently, aboriginal issues are hard to ignore in the NWT, particularly with regards to land claims and aboriginal self-government.
Our meetings in Yellowknife spoke volumes to the differences in the ways that Ontario and the NWT engage with aboriginal issues. Our meeting with Gabriella Sparling, the Deputy Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Intergovernmental Relations was especially informative. It at first struck me as odd that these two seemingly separate departments were managed from the same ministry. It turns out my skepticism was shortsighted; aboriginal self-government is an emerging reality in the Northwest Terrotiries and even though the formal agreements have yet to be sorted out, the Federal government either is negotiating with them or has in the past and recognizes to some extent that they are governments-in-waiting. Mrs. Sparling conveyed to us some of the challenges of working in her ministry. Some of these were of the usual type such as funding issues but others were quite unique. How, for example, do you get past the mentality of three separate entities (federal government, territorial government, aboriginal government-in-waiting) all of whom believe they have legitimate claims and feel no need to negotiate? How do you perform a negotiation when Canada is so reluctant to open treaties? Should all of this be negotiated at the regional level or the community level? How do you even organize the governance structure of an aboriginal government? How do you address competing land claims?
In addressing these issues I was forced to come to terms with my own ignorance on some of these issues. For example, I did not have even a passing familiarity with what exactly is entailed by a land claim. Nor did I understand how intergovernmental relations would be impacted by the territorial government’s push to acquire powers over natural resources from the federal government. It’s all a little paradoxical: aboriginal land claims are constitutionally protected and recognize some rights of indigenous peoples to the resources on their land. By contrast, the territorial government has no constitutional protection yet is trying to acquire jurisdiction over some of the very same rights. It’s no wonder that we try to avoid these issues at all costs in Ontario; they’re incredibly contentious and seem to go nowhere.
But that’s not true exactly. Although negotiations move forwards at a snail’s pace the Northwest Territories has made huge strides towards recognizing land claims and moving towards aboriginal self-government in spite of all obstacles. In 2003 the Tlicho community signed a joint land claim – self-government agreement. The Deline have had a recognized land claim since 1993 and have been negotiating self-government for the past fourteen years, as we learned from George Cleary, who manages the Deline Land Corporation. Progress is slow, but at this point self-government seems like an innevitability in the Northwest Territories, though who knows how long it will take to get there.
With this in mind, I wonder what the future has in store for aboriginals in Ontario? Is there a future for something like aboriginal self-government here in Canada? It seems like a tall order. But it also seems meiopic to assume that things as they are now will continue on indefinitely into the future. Wherever we end up on this issue, I’ll certainly be watching with a keen eye, I think, largely thanks to the experiences and knowledge I picked up from our trip to Yellowknife.  

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