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Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Carolyn Bennett, left, looks on as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Assembly of First Nations Chief Perry Bellegarde participate in the signing of the Assembly of First Nations-Canada Memorandum of Understanding on Joint Priorities on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on June 12, 2017. (Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS) By John Paul and Ken Coates

During the federal election of 2015, Justin Trudeau raised the bar on Indigenous policy. He promised to adopt the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), end on-reserve water advisories, develop true and sustainable nation-to-nation relationships, and tackle the Indian Act . Several times he stated that “governments grant permits, communities grant permission” on matters of resource rights.

As Prime Minister, Trudeau made Indigenous issues a top priority of his new government. Never in Canadian history had a federal government given First Nations, Métis and Inuit rights such a high profile. The hopes of Indigenous Canadians soared. But it is now two and a half years later, and Indigenous impatience is growing.

It is not that the Liberals have stood still. The restructuring of the Indigenous Affairs department moves us in the right direction. The national commitment to UNDRIP seems to be somewhat back on track. The budgetary commitments are impressive, but the money is not flowing fast enough.

On resource development, the government has trouble avoiding old-style paternalism, and hasn’t paid enough attention to those Indigenous groups seeking to promote economic independence through involvement in the resource economy. Generations of marginalization cannot be erased with a few good words and a dollop of federal largesse.

It is ironic that while the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission identified profound failures in government policy as underlying the crises in Indigenous communities, both investigations nonetheless advocated major expansions in government programs. This amounts to doubling down on what failed in the past.

For generations, Indigenous peoples have received many promises, only to see these efforts collapse through under-funding, poor design or faulty implementation. First Nations, Métis and Inuit hoped that the election of the Liberals would usher in a new era. But the Liberals are learning that earning long-term trust is a serious challenge.

Two things are clear. Federal government management of Indigenous affairs has not produced major improvements, despite decades of effort and the creation of complex bureaucracies. More promising, by far, have been initiatives to support Indigenous financial and political autonomy, including the arrangements embedded in modern treaties and self-government agreements. Recent Liberal pronouncements on new approaches including direct funding allocations, the acceptance of Indigenous self-government, and major changes in the role of the Indian Act hold more promise than an expansion of post-World War II social and economic programs.

To take one example of the importance of Indigenous control, Aboriginal self-government has seen major achievements in education in Nova Scotia and BC. For another, the impressive rise of Indigenous business holds the potential for greater financial autonomy from governments.

Indigenous authority does not rest on the wishes of a government or a political party. It stands, instead, on the constitutional recognition of Indigenous treaties and rights, a lengthy series of Supreme Court victories, modern treaties, UNDRIP, and human rights legislation. The co-production of policy and priorities between Indigenous organizations and governments is a major and hard-won achievement.

Parliament could advance relations with Indigenous peoples by declaring the field a non-partisan endeavour. Funding priorities and policies should be developed collaboratively with Indigenous governments and organizations and not subject to the whims of political parties and electoral cycles.

The Trudeau government has cleared the way for innovative approaches to Indigenous policy-making. Now […]

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