Ottawa’s reform legislation falls victim to competing agendas
by John Richards
Ottawa published two major Aboriginal policy reviews in the 1960s. One was the infamous “White Paper” presented to Parliament in 1969 by Jean Chrétien, at the time Minister of Indian Affairs in Pierre Trudeau’s first government. It recommended abolition of the Indian Act and phasing out of reserves in favour of complete integration of First Nations into Canadian society. The White Paper served as a foil for Harold Cardinal’s “Red Paper,” an early statement on behalf of indigenous autonomy and an expansive interpretation of treaty rights.
The other document, now largely forgotten, was a more nuanced review. The Hawthorn Report, named for the study’s director, Harry B. Hawthorn, insisted that policy not be directed at assimilation (“the research on which the Report is based was not directed to finding ways in which Indians might be assimilated”), but it also insisted “that individuals be given the capacity to make choices which include the decision to take jobs away from reserves, play a part in politics, and move and reside where they wish.”1 Central to Hawthorn’s vision was expansion of the capacity of individuals, which required provision of high-quality on-reserve social services. Hawthorn predicted that once health care and schools of decent quality were available, many reserve residents would choose to leave the reserve and participate in mainstream society – as equals with other Canadians. He acknowledged that many would not make that choice, and that living on-reserve was an equally valid option.
Bill C-33, the First Nations Control of First Nations Education Act, tabled in Parliament in the spring of 2014, was the product of a tempestuous three-year reform project intended to provide a legislative basis for reserve schools across Canada. Over the half-century since Hawthorn wrote, apart from providing cash transfers to reserves, Ottawa has played a very limited role in K–12 education. Since the 1960s individual First Nation councils have, with exceptions and qualifications, managed their respective schools on a stand-alone basis. In effect, Bill C-33 took up Hawthorn’s challenge to make reserve-based social programs – schools in this case – of sufficiently high quality that First Nation youth would have “the capacity to make choices.”