Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Native agenda rises

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Canada's aboriginal people scored a major victory Friday when Prime Minister Stephen Harper agreed to make treaty rights and other grievances a top-level priority that would receive what the prime minister called "enhanced oversight" by his office.

It doesn't mean that any of the numerous outstanding grievances will be resolved immediately, and the government refused to back down on some key stumbling blocks, including the recently passed omnibus bill that some aboriginals claim tramples on their rights.

But native concerns now have the highest profile since the constitutional debates under former prime ministers Pierre Trudeau and Brian Mulroney. As a result of Friday's meeting, they've been elevated from a departmental responsibility to one of major national importance.

The grassroots Idle No More movement and the hunger strike by Chief Theresa Spence of Attawapiskat First Nation in northern Ontario led to the sudden turnaround in national priorities, but there were other factors, too.

It's doubtful, for example, that anything would have been achieved on Friday without the constructive, respectful leadership of Chief Shawn Atleo of the Assembly of First Nations, who regrettably is now taking a medical leave.

And despite the fact previous polls have shown most Canadians don't rate aboriginal issues very high on their list of priorities, public opinion is playing a role. Many Canadians may not understand the intricacies of the aboriginal-Canadian relationship, which almost requires degrees in law and history to fully comprehend, but they are aware of native suffering and they expect Mr. Harper to manage the file in a way that produces progress and avoids further acrimony.

It may be unfair that the weight of aboriginal history has fallen upon this prime minister alone -- the blame goes back hundreds of years -- but the fact is he is the country's leader at a critical moment in time and it is his responsibility to move the file forward.

Under all these circumstances, the protesters can rightly claim to have made a difference, but they risk losing their influence -- the moral high ground, according to them -- if their demonstrations escalate into acts of violence.

The Idle No More movement has achieved all that can be reasonably delivered in the short term.

The paternalistic and racist Indian Act, which governs every aspect of native life on reserves and which was originally intended as a tool of assimilation, should have been eliminated decades ago, but the political will didn't exist. (Actually, the Trudeau government wanted to do just that, but aboriginal leaders rejected it because it failed to recognize their special place in Canada.)

The legislation governs every aspect of aboriginal life on reserves, including their right to vote, which wasn't granted until 1961. Even the right to move freely in the country was restricted.

During the last 50 years, the government's approach has been to modify and slowly dismantle aspects of the Indian Act, but the process was flawed and the political will for substantial change did not exist.

The Harper government recognizes the Act is an impediment to a renewed relationship, but it has taken the position it cannot be eliminated without replacing it with new agreements on a broad range of issues, including funding, resources, individual and group rights, health care and so on.

This is a reasonable approach and one that would recognize aboriginals as a unique group with special rights, but it does require consultations, not just with more than 600 Indian chiefs, but with reserve residents, too. It's one thing to want to repeal the Indian Act, but new laws and treaties must replace it, and these must have the consent of those who will be affected.

The process shouldn't take another 10 years, but it won't be done by the time the snow melts, either.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien, Shannon Sampert, and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 15, 2013 A6

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