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The Millbrook Power Centre off Highway 102 near Truro, a commercial enterprise owned by the Millbrook First Nation, has become a beehive of business activity in recent years. (FRANCIS CAMPBELL / Staff) For generations, the Mi’kmaq and Maliseet in the Atlantic region have been among the most marginalized, ignored, and government-dominated Indigenous peoples in Canada.

After signing “peace and friendship” treaties with the British in the 18th century — the accords did not cover land and resources — they were displaced by incoming British settlers and experienced the occupation of the most economically valuable parts of their traditional territories. The British authorities paid little attention to their impoverishment and seemed to buy into the idea that the First Nations would, as victims of the inevitability of “progress,” disappear within a generation or two.

The Mi’kmaq and Maliseet did not disappear, although they suffered grievously from their economic displacement, government neglect of their interests and the pervasive racism of 19th and 20th century British North America and Canada.

The consequences are clearly evident: extreme poverty, physical isolation from the major population and economic centres, accelerated language and culture loss, and a growing government presence that smothered Mi’kmaq and Maliseet community control.

Conditions improved, marginally, through the 20th century, but Indigenous attempts to secure meaningful control over their lives, a proper treaty, and an appropriate place in the regional economy have proven to be elusive.

The country is currently struggling to find the proper path forward on Aboriginal policy. It is certainly an issue that has the attention of the prime minister and his cabinet, which includes three extremely capable and committed ministers — Jody Wilson-Raybould, Jane Philpott and Carolyn Bennett — with major responsibilities in the field. First Nations, including the Mi’kmaq and Maliseet, work within their communities and regional organizations to outline a preferred strategy, although they do so with limited planning capacity and uncertain resources for their governments. But everyone agrees that the path forward must break away from traditional approaches.

Reduced to the basics, there are two fundamental options for the government and Canada and First Nations in Atlantic Canada.

The status quo approach focuses on expanded government intervention and enhanced funding. Proponents of this approach urge government, with most of its own civil servants pushing this line, to add new programs, improve funding, and focus on community-level supports in everything from child welfare and violence prevention to housing and cultural revitalization. This approach requires maintenance of a large federal bureaucracy and a great deal of negotiation between Ottawa and the First Nations. The only major problem with this approach is that it does not work particularly well.

The autonomy movement focuses on locally controlled business development that capitalizes on Aboriginal and treaty rights and converts court-provided guarantees of Indigenous authority into economic growth. In this formulation, it is business more than government and federal administration that truly supports Indigenous independence and cultural strength. This approach shifts power and responsibility from Ottawa to Indigenous communities and their governments. We have substantial evidence that this strategy is producing real and positive change.

The Mi’kmaq and Maliseet provide an excellent illustration of the value of the second approach. In Atlantic Canada, the 1999 Supreme Court of Canada decision on the Marshall case produced a major shift toward real change and growth of First Nations in the fishery. It reinstated a right that, by law, should always have been there. It reinserted the First Nations into a major economic sector from which they had been effectively barred. The decision ignited business growth and employment in regional First Nations communities, spreading quickly beyond the fishery. It has sparked the rapid […]

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