Ever since 1982 Ottawa, the provinces and the leaders of the nation’s native people have struggled to define the “existing aboriginal and treaty rights” that were recognized —but left unspecified—in Canada’s new Constitution. This week, as Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, the 10 premiers and native leaders meet in a third toplevel effort to find agreement on that tangled issue, Ottawa was expected to press for provincial consent to the native peoples’ key demand for self-government. In a meeting last week with native leaders, federal officials tabled a proposed amendment to the Constitution which would meet native demands for a third level of government.
The federal proposal would amend the Constitution to “recognize and affirm the rights of the aboriginal peoples of Canada to self-government within the Canadian federation, where those rights are defused through negotiated agreements.” It also opened up for discussion the exact powers of native governments, the geographical areas they would rule and the programs for which they would be responsible.
An amendment would be a dramatic extension of the current powers of Canada’s 325,000 status Indians, who are eligible to live on reserves, 25,000 Inuit and thousands of Métis and nonstatus Indians. Native leaders welcomed the Mulroney government’s proposal as an improvement over the more limited view of native self-government put forward by Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s Liberal administration. But they objected to the terms of the amendment, which would require having the precise terms of self-government negotiated first by native groups, the federal government and the province or territory concerned.
That feature of the proposal was designed to overcome objections of provinces that have stalled moves to native self-government in the past—all except New Brunswick, Ontario and Manitoba. A proposal that received wider support from native leaders was quietly floated last month by Premier Richard Hatfield of New Brunswick. His one-page proposed amendment, which simply suggested that “the aboriginal peoples have the right to self-government within the Canadian federation,” would commit Ottawa and the provinces to negotiate self-government agreements with native peoples, but without limiting the powers of Parliament or the provincial legislatures.
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