What we can learn from the Nisga’a Treaty

| July 5, 2011 | 0 Comments

Troy Media – By Joseph Quesnel

If there is one policy area where a prudent attitude should be taken, it is Aboriginal policy.

In both Canada and the United States, there is a history of implementing a seesaw policy of supporting Native autonomy and then adopting an assimilationist approach, then back again.

No group is more micromanaged than on-reserve First Nations in Canada, guided by the theory that a removal of federal interference from Indian affairs would lead First Nations to succeed. But, like decolonizing developing countries, removing the ‘external colonizer’ among First Nations is only one part of the equation. The larger job is ensuring that the right governing institutions are created.

The Nisga’a experiment

Aboriginal self-government is one area where a prudent attitude is necessary.

In May, 2000, BC’s first modern land claims agreement, with the Nisga’a, signed between the province, the federal government, and the Nisga’a Tribal Council, came into effect.

The treaty transferred nearly 2,000 square kilometres of Crown land to the Nisga’a, created a provincial park, and transferred control over resources to the Nisga’a Nation.

More controversially, the treaty granted significant law-making powers to the Nisga’a government, especially in areas integral to preserving Nisga’a cultural identity. Many were concerned, especially in B.C., however, with the provision that Nisga’a laws would prevail over provincial or federal ones in many legislative. It was thought that the Nisga’a Treaty created an ‘unconstitutional third order of government.’

But beyond that controversy, a crucial debate among both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal scholars, and activists, is taking place around whether self-government can actually deliver a better way of life among First Nation communities.

This debate is critical, as First Nation communities may view the Nisga’a agreement as a model for their own self-government. In 2009, B.C. policy expert Gordon Gibson, in his work on Aboriginal policy A New Look at Canadian Indian Policy: Respect the Collective – Promote the Individual, recognized this gap in research. Despite scholarly work promoting ideas of Aboriginal self-government, no one had yet systematically studied a functioning First Nation government with had achieved substantial freedom from the Indian Act.

Gordon wrote: “The Nisga’a treaty is held out as an example of the right way to settle Indian claims and yet we simply do not know how it is working after seven years and cannot trust any of the three governments involved to tell us of problems.”

In 2010, the Frontier Centre for Public Policy embarked on the first comprehensive look at how the Nisga’a Treaty is working on the ground. We commissioned COMPAS, a professional polling firm, to conduct computer-assisted surveys of Nisga’a people about how governance and services have been affected by the Treaty. For comparative purposes, the Frontier Centre interviewed a sample of respondents from nearby Tsimshian First Nations, as the Tsimshian are similar culturally, linguistically, and economically. The main difference is that the Tsimshian still live under the Indian Act.

After questioning a representative survey sample of Nisga’a residents from all four Nisga’a villages, as well as Tsimshian from two communities, these are the conclusions we reached:

First, self-government does makes a difference. Nisga’a respondents told us they trust their government more and think it is more honest in spending and hiring. They also think education and health services have improved.

Second, and on the other hand, Nisga’a think their government consults less often with the people and believe their financial situation has actually worsened.

Challenges still exist

Third, many challenges were identified, among them a belief that family-style voting, mismanaged economic development, and politicized service delivery still exist.

Fourth, the respondents also thought that the dependency created by the Indian Act is still alive and attitudes need to change.

Finally, while the study confirmed that self-government has not ‘hurt’ the Nisga’a, neither is it a panacea. Creating effective institutions, wise leadership, and changed attitudes, is a long-term task.

The conclusion we should draw from the Frontier Centre’s study is obvious: Nations must be prepared for the consequences when they clamour for an end to the Indian Act and any experimentation should be implemented with prudence.

Otherwise, the consequences of failure could harm individuals and communities.

Joseph Quesnel is a policy analyst with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.

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Category: First Nations

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