CANADA

Failing to right old wrongs

Ken MacQueen April 15 1985
CANADA

Failing to right old wrongs

Ken MacQueen April 15 1985

Failing to right old wrongs

CANADA

Ken MacQueen

Prime Minister Brian Mulroney had clearly planned a victory party, but the smiles were weak, and disappointment hung in the air. With the supreme confidence of a master tactician, Mulroney scheduled a reception following last week’s two-day constitutional conference on aboriginal rights. But far from toasting a new harmony in relations between the federal and provincial governments and Canada’s native peoples, the reception turned into a grim post-mortem on the indecisive result of yet another constitutional conference on aboriginal rights. After two days spent charming and cajoling premiers, native and territorial leaders, a poker-faced Mulroney watched his proposed constitutional amendment to recognize the principle of aboriginal selfgovernment slip from his hands in the final hours of the conference.

Mdroney’s amendment—a compromise on Ottawa’s originally far more demanding proposal —would have launched negotiations to allow varying degrees of native self-government

across the country. At one point, the proposition actually appeared close to being accepted. But Mulroney was stymied in the end by what he called a “lack of trust.” Mulroney watered down his initial amendment to meet the concerns of British Columbia, Alberta and Saskatchewan, which fear native claims on their petroleum resources, and Nova Scotia, which shared with Saskatchewan concern over the prospect of native groups taking the provinces to court if negotiations on self-government broke down. As a result, Mulroney lost the support of the largest status Indian organization and of the Inuit.

But Mulroney refused to let his first constitutional conference dissolve into failure on national television. As the meeting ended, he suggested his proposed amendment be “held in abeyance” for two months to allow further study. “We have made progress, substantial progress, in the long and challenging work of righting old wrongs,” declared the Prime Minister as he announced that Justice Minister John Crosbie will chair a meeting in late May of native leaders and provincial ministers in an attempt to revive the proposal.

Although that was far from the decisive victory for which Mulroney had hoped, the conference was an improvement over the acrimonious tone of a similar meeting held by former prime minister Pierre Trudeau 13 months ago. While they rejected Mulroney’s compromise last week, native leaders praised him for advancing the cause of native self-government. “We are aware that there has been significant movement,” a disappointed Georges Erasmus, a status Indian spokesman, told Mulroney.

What encouraged native leaders —and alarmed some of the provinces— was not so much the expected Mulroney style but the considerable substance of his proposals. Mulroney opened the conference with the strongest position in favor of native self-government ever advanced by Ottawa. Like Indian, Inuit and Métis leaders at the table, Mulroney argued that the only way to restore dignity and prosperity to native communities was to allow them to run their own programs and governments. His amendment, as originally proposed, would have entrenched the principle of native self-government in the Constitution with a commitment that federal,

provincial and territorial governments begin negotiating the substance with each aboriginal group in their regions.

But the proposal encountered firm resistance from some of the provinces, especially in the West. The premiers of all three westernmost provinces, who worry about potential native claims to vast tracts of land and valuable mineral, petroleum and forest resources, objected to the idea of entrenching the native right to self-government first and working out the details later. Declared British Columbia’s premier, William Bennett: “We feel we must define, then sign—not the reverse.”

When the conference resumed, Mulroney put forward a compromise draft amendment inspired by Premier Grant Devine of Saskatchewan, which would have recognized the principle of native self-government but removed any reference to a constitutional obligation on the provinces to negotiate terms. The Prime Minister’s quick survey around the table indicated that he had conditional approval from seven provinces—the bare minimum given the fact that a constitutional amendment requires the approval of Parliament and seven provincial legislatures with at least 50 per cent of the population.

Only Bennett and Alberta’s premier, Peter Lougheed, stated their opposition. Frank Miller of Ontario, Howard Pawley of Manitoba and Prince Edward Island’s James Lee, who favored the original proposal, now said that they would not support the watered-down amendment unless it had the broad support of aboriginal groups. For his part, Quebec’s René Lévesque, while favoring aboriginal self-government, refused to support any amendment on the grounds that his province is not yet a signatory to the Constitution.

Only the Métis National Council and the Native Council of Canada—representing nonstatus native groups— agreed that they could reluctantly live with the revised amendment. The decisive blow came when spokesmen for the Assembly of First Nations, the association representing a majority of Canada’s status Indians, flatly rejected the compromise.

Mulroney then had little choice but to seek a two-month extension in the hope of winning back the wavering Inuit. But in the meantime, both Miller and Pawley said that they would have to reconsider their support because of native opposition. That uncertainty suggested that the unfinished business of native self-government could continue to fester without any prospect of resolution in the near future. Warned Premier Richard Hatfield of New Brunswick: “I admire the patience of the aboriginal people up until now. But I don’t think that will continue.”^