First Nations hold a unique place in Canadian history. While Aboriginal groups played a key role in the establishment of our country, centuries of discrimination and disenfranchisement have resulted in a number of disturbing realities. In recent decades, issues affecting Aboriginal communities including lack of education and housing, unemployment, substance addiction, and criminalization have increasingly emerged as serious public policy problems.
On January 17, the School of Public Policy and Governance hosted At the Crossroads: A Forum on Aboriginal Policy to explore these socio-cultural, political, and economic challenges, and to spark a discussion about the role of public policy in engaging and enabling Aboriginal communities to fully tackle the challenges they face.
The event featured a long list of esteemed speakers, including Katherine Hensel of the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Law, John Beaucage of the Council of Public Affairs, Justice Murray Sinclair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and Former Premier of Ontario the Honourable Bob Rae.
One of the day’s themes was articulated by Beaucage, who spoke of this time in history as witness to “the last stages of First Contact.” Beaucage elaborated by explaining that Canada is finally beginning to understand that it must disentangle itself from centuries of colonialism and the systemic oppression of Aboriginal people if the lives of these communities are to improve. Policy must mark a new way forward: one that walks alongside Aboriginal groups to support their efforts to establish a flourishing society that stands on equal footing with the Canadian state.
The importance of a non-traditional approach to policy making was echoed by Ontario Ministry of Children and Youth Services Manager Stephanie Prosen, who spoke of the innovative government approaches to policy design and implementation regarding Aboriginal child welfare in Canada. Instead of traditional ways of formulating Aboriginal policies, the government hopes to engage in more direct consultation in order to build preventative services. Prosen emphasized the fact that most Aboriginal communities are not looking to the government for answers–they already have them–but rather to take a role in delivery and implementation.
Beyond the responsibility of policy professionals to help design implementation strategies, another theme of the event was that of reconciliation and justice. The afternoon panel on criminal justice addressed the fact that the Canadian legal system and litigation processes are fundamentally counter to the traditional ways in which Aboriginal communities engage in conflict resolution.
Much work must be done in order to create a system that fosters conflict resolution with cultural sensitivity. Nowhere is this more evident than in the aftermath of the Aboriginal residential school system. The Honourable Justice Murray Sinclair spoke eloquently about his work with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which is intended to begin the process of healing decades of abuse faced by First Nations children and families. Justice Sinclair emphasized the importance of taking the time to give full attention to the policies that made the cultural genocide of a people possible.
Former Premier Bob Rae closed the forum by speaking to the role of public policy in fostering healing through the recognition of the importance of reconciliation and respect. His words emphasized that Canada can no longer turn a blind eye to the centuries of oppression that Aboriginal people have faced. It is the government’s responsibility to now take an active role in fostering reconciliation, not through simple apologies and token gestures, but through policies that empower and engage First Nations to stand on equal footing as citizens of Canada. Indeed, Rae argued that the economic future of Canada is dependent on a positive relationship with Aboriginal people. As climate change begins to have an increasing impact on the Far North, the interests and concerns of these communities must be heard.
It is important that public policy adopt this ethos of reconciliation and respect if Aboriginal groups are to have their rightful place at the table.
Silvia Ciobotaru is a first-year Masters student at the School of Public Policy and Governance.