For centuries, white settlers adopted a sense of racial superiority to Aboriginals. At some point in the 1970s – after Pierre Trudeau’s 1969 White Paper and before entrenchment of treaty rights in the 1982 constitution – Canadians repented. Since then, majority attitudes have been suffused with “white guilt.” Four decades after Trudeau’s White Paper, a small Aboriginal elite now exists, and much of its discourse is angry. Relations between Aboriginals and non-Aboriginals have much in common with black-white relations in the United States. In both cases, the sins of the past haunt the present, and in both cases, the combination of majority guilt and minority anger is not a basis for good policy.

In a lengthy open letter written during the election campaign to Dwight Dorey – at the time head of the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples – Stephen Harper laid out his intentions for Aboriginal policy. It was a potentially significant gesture, largely ignored by the media. “The fundamental obligation of a Conservative federal government,” he wrote, “would be to improve the living conditions and educational and economic opportunity of all Aboriginal Canadians including off-reserve, urban and non-status Indian and Métis.” The letter made the case for ambitious programs to improve education and employment outcomes for Aboriginals, wherever they are living.

Skeptics can argue that Harper was merely making an electoral appeal to Dorey’s supporters (non-status Aboriginals living off-reserve) and that he has no intention to make of Aboriginal concerns a “fundamental obligation.” The skeptics may be right; it is too soon to know. Whatever Harper’s government does or does not accomplish, the letter contains a good deal of common sense.

Under Paul Martin, federal Aboriginal policy hewed closely to the goals of the 600 band chiefs, as articulated by the Assembly of First Nations (AFN). For example, the first ministers and Aboriginal leaders met in Kelowna last November and promised that the Aboriginal high school completion rate would, by 2016, equal the rate for non-Aboriginals. A noble goal, but virtually all the promised new money went on-reserve: more than $1 billion on-reserve; $150 million off-reserve.

This overwhelming on-reserve emphasis does not make sense. Of the one million Canadians who identified as Aboriginal in the 2001 census, slightly over six in ten identified as Indian – as opposed to Métis or Inuit – but of these six, half lived off-reserve. Once we include Métis and Inuit, seven in ten Aboriginals lived off-reserve; five in ten in a city. Despite facing elements of racial prejudice, off-reserve Aboriginals have significantly higher employment rates, incomes and education levels than do those on-reserve. The future for most – not all, but most – Aboriginals is not on a reserve; as is the case for other Canadians, their future is in Canadian towns and cities, as neighbours to non-Aboriginals.

I see two fundamental priorities that need to be established if Aboriginal policy is to work. Harper’s letter raises the first of these, namely accountability.

PRIORITY ONE: Aboriginals are receiving services from three orders of governments – federal, provincial and band-based. All three orders must become more accountable for results.

Consider K–12 schooling. If the next generation of Aboriginals is to succeed, a precondition is better education. At present, neither band councils nor the provinces nor Ottawa – with a few honourable exceptions – are measuring school performance. In repeated reports, the Auditor General has criticized the Department of Indian Affairs for transferring money to bands for schools while making no effort to monitor school performance. Which, in general, is not good enough. According to the census, among young Canadians aged 15 to 24, by far the lowest high school completion rate exists among those on-reserve. This is not to let the provinces off the hook. Off-reserve, Aboriginal high school completion results are better but far from adequate.

In his final years as Prime Minister, Jean Chrétien moved away from the agenda of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (RCAP). Among his final projects was the First Nations Governance Act, legislation intended to improve accountability of band councils to band members and to Ottawa. The chiefs opposed it as a violation of the Aboriginal right to self-government. Under Martin, the policy pendulum swung toward accommodation of the AFN. One of his first decisions as Prime Minister was to withdraw Chretien’s draft legislation. Martin then initiated high-profile negotiations with Aboriginal organizations, negotiations that culminated in the First Ministers’ Meeting in Kelowna last November.

While many – Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal – participated in the negotiations leading to Kelowna and the meeting proposed some important targets, it lacked the “teeth” to provide a reasonable expectation that the targets will be hit. For there to be any chance of meeting the high school completion target, for example, there will need to be more accountable and more professionally run on-reserve school boards, and more accountability among municipal school boards for the fate of Aboriginal children in provincially run schools.

PRIORITY TWO: There must be a more clearly stated limit to the RCAP strategy of “institutional parallelism.”

The RCAP commissioners envisioned a future in which Aboriginals need have minimum interaction with other Canadians. It is an agenda as unworkable as Trudeau’s 1969 White Paper proposal to eliminate reserves. Reserves are important for those Aboriginals who choose a communal lifestyle. For those who choose an urban lifestyle, the need is for affirmative action programs to integrate them into Canadian institutions – as employees and employers, as community leaders, as teachers, as politicians.

In his first term as Prime Minister, Trudeau argued, “It’s inconceivable … that … one section of the society have a treaty with the other section of the society. We must all be equal under the laws and we must not sign treaties amongst ourselves.” A quarter century later, RCAP concluded that Aboriginals are so culturally distinct from other Canadians that individual Aboriginals participating in mainstream institutions are doomed to fail. “To this day,” concluded the commissioners in their 1996 report, “Aboriginal people’s sense of confidence and well-being remains tied to the strength of their nations. Only as members of restored nations can they reach their potential in the twenty-first century.”

Trudeau’s position denies the importance of Aboriginal institutions; RCAP denies the reality that Aboriginals are increasingly living in mainstream Canadian society. No matter where they choose to live, Aboriginals and their children should have options as broad and as attractive as those for other Canadians. Harper is right to have insisted on that. However, he has yet to prove the skeptics wrong. To date there is scant evidence that he has made of Aboriginal policy a “fundamental obligation” of his government.