The policy void at the centre of Canadian politics

During Michael Ignatieff’s rise to the top of the Liberal Party, there was a great deal of comment on his academic career in Britain and the United States and speculation about whether he could be a new philosopher-king. Much is expected of a leader who has made a career of analyzing the world’s most pressing problems. He will need all of his analytical skills – and more – if he hopes to make inroads into the problems facing Canada’s Aboriginal population.

Few Canadians fully appreciate the nature of the challenges facing Aboriginal people. This is not because Canadians are ignorant of the history of Aboriginal people in this country – though many have a great deal more to learn. Nor is it because of the complicated web of First Nations, Métis and Inuit interests that snares even the best-intentioned. Rather it is because the Canadian federation has structural barriers that prevent a robust response from ever being mounted.

The Constitution Act of 1982 allocates responsibility for “Indians, and lands reserved for Indians” to the federal government, and the provision of social services to the provinces and territories. What happens, then, when Aboriginal people live in urban areas? Does the federal government still have responsibility for these “Indians,” or do the provinces and territories? The practical consequence is that each jurisdiction points its finger at the other, and little gets done.

The question of who is responsible matters a great deal when you consider that 54 per cent of all Aboriginal people, according to the 2006 census, live in cities. More than half! The impression that most Canadians have of Canada’s Aboriginal people – of pressing social problems on remote reserves or the troubles facing Inuit in the high Arctic – is outmoded. The more common Aboriginal reality is someone trying to be an active participant in urban life in Canada.

The Conservative Party came out forcefully in 2005 with a commitment to address urban Aboriginal issues. During the 2005–06 federal election campaign, the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples (CAP), the national voice of off-reserve Aboriginal people, posted to its website a lengthy letter in which Stephen Harper promised that a Conservative government would undertake significant work in this area. CAP National Chief Patrick Brazeau is now sitting in the Senate, but we have no more activity on the urban Aboriginal agenda than we did under the Liberals.

Will Ignatieff’s team do better? The early indications are not promising. Aboriginal issues do not appear to be high on his agenda. Ignatieff’s speeches have fleeting references and occasional motherhood statements on Aboriginal issues, but no substance. In general, the Liberals have fallen into a rut in terms of their policies related to Aboriginal peoples.

In their election platforms, statements and issue summaries, it is all about the 2005 Kelowna Accord. The Kelowna Accord was negotiated by all the provinces and territories, five national Aboriginal organizations and the federal government on the eve of Paul Martin’s defeat. The accord was impressive for its reach, but it offered little hope to urban Aboriginal people. While urban Aboriginal issues were to be a lens applied to the accord, they appeared to be more of a blindfold in the final analysis. The incoming Conservative government quickly discarded the accord and set off in a new direction. Nevertheless, Kelowna still casts a long shadow on Liberal Aboriginal policy.

To be fair, there is still time for Ignatieff to craft something significant. The real test will be when the Liberals release their platform. Unfortunately, few Canadian politicians dream of solving the “new Indian” problem, but Canada will be an unfinished federation until it does.

So what should Ignatieff do? To begin, he should seek to understand the complexity of Aboriginal reality, a reality that includes urban Aboriginal people as well as those living on traditional lands, and seek to make real change for all. He should show leadership and extend ideas of reconciliation to urban Aboriginal people. While we can debate priorities, it is clear that there are four natural areas to begin. Education, health, employment and housing are critical needs for urban Aboriginal people. In each area they lag far behind Canadian society, and in each area there are opportunities for great gains.

In addition, Ignatieff should reinvest in critical urban Aboriginal service delivery infrastructure such as the Aboriginal Friendship Centre Program, which has been severely underfunded for more than a decade. In total, Ignatieff should place as much emphasis on a comprehensive urban Aboriginal strategy as on traditional land claim and treaty issues. I repeat the undeniable reality: the majority of Aboriginal people now live in urban areas.

Ignatieff needs to ask what he wants to accomplish. Many federal officials would object that the federal role stops at reserve boundaries. The real obstacle, however, may be a Liberal Party reluctant to tackle comprehensively the problems of Canadian Aboriginals.

If he chooses, Ignatieff can take meaningful action, which needs to be bold action, to improve the lives of Aboriginal people in urban areas. What has been missing for some time is leadership from senior Canadian political leaders willing to acknowledge the importance of urban, as well as on-reserve, Aboriginal lives. There is a policy void at the centre of Canadian politics, a void that the Liberals could fill. The important question is: Will they?