Royal Commission on Aboriginal Affairs

Lubicon Lake Indian Nation
Little Buffalo Lake, AB
FAX: 403-629-3939

Mailing address:
3536 - 106 Street
Edmonton, AB T6J 1A4
FAX: 403-437-0719

May 6, 1991

Enclosed for your information are copies of selected newspaper articles on the newly announced Royal Commission on aboriginal issues. The history of such Royal Commissions in Canada is not good.

Typically Royal Commissions in Canada are created in response to growing political pressure to take action. They are created in lieu of action by disingenuous politicians who hope that the pressure on them to take action will be first deflected and then dissipated over the often several year period that such Commissions take to complete their work.

It's unlikely that a Royal Commission on aboriginal issues will surface anything new on either the nature of the problem or necessary remedial action. Inquiry after inquiry into aboriginal issue after aboriginal issue arrives at the same or similar conclusions.

Rather than a Royal Commission on aboriginal issues what's needed are politicians with the decency, integrity and courage to do what's generally known to be the right and honourable thing in such areas as aboriginal land rights and aboriginal self-government. Until such politicians can be elected and take obviously required action it's likely that the serious problems associated with the plight of aboriginal people in Canada will only continue to fester and grow worse.

Attachment #1: re-printed without permission from The Globe and Mail, Friday, March 08, 1991


By Graham Fraser

Parliamentary Bureau


Calling Canada's aboriginal issues "the most glaring human-rights problem in this country," federal Human Rights Commissioner Maxwell Yalden yesterday renewed his call for a royal commission to examine the matter.

"In the current context, the option of a royal commission still looks to us like the most hopeful -- perhaps the only satisfactory -- way of getting to the bottom of a number of complex and controversial issues on which the two sides, let alone the general public, simply do not see eye to eye," Mr. Yalden told the House of Commons standing committee on aboriginal affairs.

"A basic rethinking of federal relations with aboriginal people is now in order."

He told the committee that the royal commission should be named even though the Citizens' Forum on Canada's Future, headed by Keith Spicer, has aboriginal issues as part of its mandate.

Mr. Yalden quoted Mr. Spicer as saying in a Nov. 21 letter to Prime Minister Brian Mulroney that the forum would not be able to do a "thorough" review of aboriginal concerns.

Speaking to reporters later, Indian Affairs Minister Thomas Siddon said he does not anticipate a decision on a royal commission until at least next summer, and he disagrees with Mr. Yalden's suggestion that it should start work before then.

"I think the Spicer Commission is the proper place for Canadians, including aboriginal Canadians, to express their views about the future of a united Canada, which we all hope to see as the end result of all this discussion," Mr. Siddon said.

Mr. Yalden told the committee there has to be a change in the way the federal government deals with native people, "so aboriginal leaders and their people can believe that they are in a fair game."

New Democrat Ray Skelly said Mr. Yalden should have filed a complaint himself over human-rights abuses during a prolonged confrontation last summer between Mohawks and government authorities near Montreal.

"My answer is...that we had no prima facie grounds in thinking that a person was engaged in a discriminatory fashion under the law," Mr. Yalden said, saying that the human-rights legislation permits him only to address cases under federal jurisdiction that deal with questions of discrimination on certain grounds such as sex, race or religion.

The committee also heard from the Indigenous Bar Association, which also called for an independent judicial inquiry.

Attachment #2: re-printed without permission from The Globe and Mail, Friday, April 12, 1991


Royal commission is expected to be announced early in May

By Susan Delacourt

Parliamentary Bureau


Prime Minster Brian Mulroney hinted strongly yesterday that a royal commission on aboriginal issues will be announced soon.

Asked whether the federal government is planning such a commission, Mr. Mulroney smiled and told reporters that "it is not a proposition that we have excluded. We're going to have an adjournment (of Parliament) soon, and we're going to analyze it closely."

He stressed that he had put forward the idea before the Meech Lake constitutional accord was "sabotaged" last June, and that he was still interested in the prospect, even though the promise went into limbo after the death of Meech.

Since then, many people -- including Maxwell Yalden, head of the Canadian Human Rights Commission -- have pressed the government to go forward immediately with a commission on aboriginal issues, but the government has repeatedly said it is either too soon or too impractical.

However, the Prime Minister's remarks yesterday appeared to confirm growing speculation that the time has now come for the commission. His comments also seemed to confirm reports about the expected timing of such an announcement.

It has been rumoured that the government will unveil the royal commission around the beginning of May -- shortly before the Speech from the Throne, scheduled for mid-May, and shortly after a House of Commons committee issues its report on last summer's Quebec native crisis, probably April 29 or 30.

Ethel Blondin, a Liberal representative on the committee, acknowledged yesterday that the report's key recommendations are likely to include a royal commission on aboriginal issues, as well as a separate, judicial inquiry into the events at Oka, Que.

But she stressed that native people would not be happy with just any royal commission on aboriginal issues and that its scope and timing are crucial factors. "It has to be done in a way that's expeditious, not long and drawn out," she said.

During deliberations over the report, Ms. Blondin has been advocating the idea of am umbrella royal commission, which would oversee a number of other specific inquiries. The smaller probes would look into matters such as the treatment of native children in residential schools, police treatment of native people, and employment and job-training prospects for native people.

Ovide Mercredi, Manitoba Vice-Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, also believes that the government simply cannot come up with any old royal commission to examine aboriginal issues.

As he sees it, the panel has to focus not on the problems of native people, but on white society's problems in dealing with them.

Attachment #3: re-printed without permission from The Edmonton Journal, Wednesday, April 24, 1991


Royal commission, too

Julian Beltrame

Southam News


Prime Minister Brian Mulroney promised Canada's natives a new deal Tuesday, saying the time had come for Canadians to face up to the historic mistreatment of aboriginal peoples.

The prime minister announced a royal commission on native issues, an accelerated land-claims process and a "key" role for natives in future constitutional negotiations.

In a speech to about 200 British Columbia native leaders, Mulroney said his government will try to form a partnership with natives to build a new Canada.

"I believe, most sincerely, that we are on the threshold of producing very beneficial and lasting change," he said.

Besides the royal commission on the "economic, social and cultural" reality of aboriginal peoples, Mulroney pledged:

*Aboriginal concerns will be a "key element of the coming round of constitutional discussions." A government official later told reporters that aboriginal peoples will have a seat at the table, although he did not say whether they will have a vote.

*The government target for settling all land claims disputes will be the year 2000. There are currently 175 specific and 30 comprehensive land claims still to be settled.

*The government will negotiate with provinces and natives on establishing an aboriginal justice system.

*A five-step fast-track process will deal with land claims of $500,00 or less.

The main element is the creation of a commission composed of natives and non-natives for appealing rejected land claims. The commission will begin as an advisory body, but will be upgraded to a legislative tribunal if it proves successful.

Later Mulroney suggested that former federal New Democratic Party leader Ed Broadbent would be capable of heading such a commission.

Mulroney also announced $355 million to pay for successful native settlements, $320 million over five years for native post-secondary education, and $36 million to combat family violence in native communities.

Indian Affairs Minister Tom Siddon said the royal commission would be formed "soon" after consultations with natives.

The promises were greeted with only polite applause.

Taking the microphone after the prime minister, Bill Wilson, chairman of the First Nations Congress, sought assurances the royal commission will not be a way of "hiding issues you are incapable of dealing with immediately.

"We will be keeping close watch, Mr. Prime Minister," he said.

Chief Ovid Mercredi, vice-president of the Assembly of First Nations, credited the Prime Minister for finally making a commitment to involve natives in constitutional change.

But he discounted the royal commission, saying natives have been "studied to death."

Attachment #4: re-printed without permission from The Edmonton Journal, Wednesday, April 24, 1991


Joan Bryden

Southam News


Brian Mulroney's promise to create a royal commission on native issues was greeted with skepticism Tuesday by aboriginal leaders.

They criticized the prime minister for not consulting them before the announcement and warned the plan will fail if they aren't involved in choosing the commission's members and setting the terms of reference.

"If they're simply going to come amongst us and do an inventory on our situation -- how fast we die, the poor housing we live in, how poor we are, the lack of income, the high unemployment -- forget it," said Georges Erasmus, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations.

"We don't want to hear that crap. We need something that will basically go to the heart of the relationship between first nations and this country."

Erasmus said the commission must focus on ways to ensure natives gain self-government and "a share of the real power and land and resources."

Mulroney announced in Victoria that he will soon set up a royal commission to examine the economic, social and cultural situation of aboriginal peoples. Membership and terms of reference are to be announced in the next few weeks.

Both Erasmus and Viola Robinson, president of the Native Council of Canada, said their groups -- which represent most status and non-status Indians in the country -- were not consulted about the announcement.

"Just the way they've proceeded to this point has created some skepticism on our part," Erasmus said.

"Certainly there has to be more dialogue" if the commission is to be useful, said Robinson.

Robinson said aboriginal people themselves should choose their representatives on the commission. And she said the mandate should include land claims and constitutional issues.

Erasmus said a royal commission could help avert another summer of native protests -- but only if natives are involved in setting it up.

"If it's really going to be something that is going to be used to quell people and to tell them, 'Look, don't go to the barricades, don't pick up the gun, there's another alternative,' let's do it right. Let's have some respect for first nations right from the start."

Mulroney also announced Tuesday measures to accelerate land claims and the creation of an independent commission to resolve disputed claims. Those measures received a warmer welcome, although not whole-hearted support.

Attachment #5: re-printed without permission from The Globe and Mail, Wednesday, April 24, 1991



It is easy to get bogged down in the bureaucracy of aboriginal affairs in Canada. Ask anyone familiar with the grindingly slow progress of past years, the false starts, the arbitrary ends.s

Consider Ottawa's past refusal to negotiate more than six comprehensive and claims at a time, a policy Prime Minister Brian Mulroney mercifully reversed last September. Consider its reputation for rudely dismissing claims on technicalities, sowing distrust and irritation among those who must deal with the Indian Affairs Department.

Questions cry out for answers: What does self-government mean, to natives and to non-natives? Does the criminal Code apply to all Canadians, including aboriginal peoples, as Mr. Mulroney affirmed last year to the annoyance of Georges Erasmus, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations? What is the future of the reserve system? What are its virtues, its shortcomings? How is the often appalling poverty and despair on many reserves to be alleviated? What about the lives of native peoples in Canadian cities? How can aboriginal peoples best help themselves?

Speaking yesterday to the First Nations Congress in Victoria, the Prime Minister acknowledged that aboriginal Canadians have, since the first Europeans arrived, "too often been treated insensitively, unfairly and even illegally". It follows that steps to resolve native claims and grievances should be sensitive, fair and legal (and just, which is not always the same thing).

In a belated but welcome move, Mr. Mulroney promised to create a royal commission "to examine the economic, social and cultural situation of the aboriginal peoples of this country." There are mountains here to be scaled; the commissioners will find a wealth of past studies, reports and ignored recommendations to enlighten them. The Prime Minister was wise to dissociate this commission from the narrower (though crucial) cause of constitutional reform, a distinction that will give the commission the greater scope and time it needs to be useful.

Even as we await details of the commission, we may salute the government's initiatives, announced last fall and recalled yesterday, to clear a path through the tangle of red tape that has defined official dealings with natives in Canada. In particular, responding to appeals from many who have studied the handling of "specific land claims" -- claims grounded in the alleged non-performance or malfeasance of governments -- Mr. Mulroney announced the establishment of a special, independent commission to make the resolution of those claims fairer. The commission will be, as it must be, at arm's length from the Indian Affairs Department.

There was more, including new money to establish water and sewage facilities on reserves where they are inadequate or absent, and increased funding of Indian post-secondary education. The Prime Minister made an impressive speech, saying encouraging things about the government's willingness to admit past mistakes and, no small matter, to overhaul the archaic, paternalistic Indian Act.

Such things have been said before, by this government and previous governments, and native leaders may be expected to temper cautious optimism with skepticism. But the changes and initiatives Mr. Mulroney spoke of yesterday have much to recommend them; and his decision to create a royal commission should help raise the profile of aboriginal issues in Canada that, on practical, political and moral grounds, cannot afford to keep brushing them aside.

Attachment #6: re-printed without permission from The Edmonton Journal, Thursday, April 25, 1991



The aboriginal people of Canada will decide the fate of Prime Minister Brian Mulroney's royal commission. We hope they find the faith to make it work.

Royal commissions are Canada's favourite substitute for action. Confused governments use them to buy time; cynical governments use them to diffuse criticism. Indigenous people already mistrust Mulroney's motives and resent his lack of consultation on the belated master plan.

Their skepticism is justified. But is it too much to hope that they might shape the outmoded royal commission into a forum of their own creation? That they might use it to investigate, and push forward their ideas about native autonomy without the usual muffle of intermediaries?

What a gift to the country that would be. Canada needs no more lectures on native grievances from bureaucrats in the Department of Indian Affairs, from droning academics, well-meaning white liberals, poverty statisticians or politicians who prefer blather to the hard work of policy-making. Canada needs to hear from the silent, disillusioned people at the centre of this maelstrom.

This is not to say the royal commission should be an all-native exercise. Only a wide representation of Canadians can create the dialogue that has been lacking. But let's try to avoid the usual, dead-end pattern of national native investigations: white people recommend, native people reject.

Aboriginal Canadians may not be able to summon the trust for the project. They remember well that Mulroney offered a royal commission last spring to bribe Elijah Harper into last-minute submission on the Meech Lake accord, then withdrew it when the Manitoban refused to do his bidding. Through the wretched summer of Oka, the prime minister wouldn't consider a royal commission or any consultation with native leaders.

He has now come around to the idea. More correctly, Canadians who are ashamed of the country's failure to deal honourably with native citizens have driven him to it.

The prime minister will appoint a royal commission on the "economic, social and cultural situation" of aboriginal people. He appears to want to leave their political demand for improved constitutional status out of this process, an impossible expectation, if true.

The best news Mulroney offered in Victoria was a streamlined land claims process. The government promises to settle all land claims -- 175 specific claims, 30 comprehensive claims and more to come -- before the year 2000. A special fast-track system will handle claims of less than $500,000. A commission composed of native people and other Canadians, at arm's length from the government, will hear appeals.

Mulroney also promises to begin negotiations with native leaders and the provinces on a new aboriginal justice system. Alberta's Cawsey report, the Donald Marshall inquiry report from Nova Scotia and the pending conclusions in Manitoba will push those talks in the right direction.

As for the royal commission, it will succeed only if it has credibility where it counts: from Pangnirtung to the Blood reserve to Kahnawake to the urban native ghettos of Canadian cities. Ottawa's agenda can't be imposed.

There has been some talk that Ed Broadbent will be named chairman. With respect, the job might be better suited to an aboriginal Canadian with the admiration of the native community. Many names come to mind, but Elijah Harper might be ideal. If he could put aside his legitimate doubts, he could help Canadians of all races find justice in their relationships with one another.

Attachment #7: re-printed without permission from The Edmonton Journal, Saturday, April 27, 1991


Patrick Nagle

Southam News


When Prime Minister Brian mulroney's royal commission on native affairs sits down for its first meeting, they should ask only one question: What are we doing here?

There is probably more research in federal and provincial archives on the subject of how the colonists should treat the aboriginal than there is on the Quebec-Canada situation.

Starting with proclamation from the British crown in 1763 that promised royal protection for the indigenous peoples, successive Canadian governors and governments have abdicated and abandoned their constitutional responsibility to natives for more than two centuries.

Despite a budget larger than that needed to sustain some third world countries and a bureaucracy that takes up a 12-page listing in the federal telephone directory, the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs has been unable to help either the country or their charges.

The department, and the Indian Act it administers, are two of the prime targets modern native leaders want to change drastically and rapidly.

Liberal leader Jean Chretian, for example, once said to great applause he wanted to be the last minister of Indian affairs; but he has been out of that office for more than 15 years and still the department flourishes.

Since Chretian's day there have bee investigations, commissions and committees in virtually every national jurisdiction seeking a resolution to the evident conflict some native people have with the Canadian way of life.

The native story has been heard and reported accurately by these investigations but nothing has ever been done in a consistent fashion to follow through.

Thomas Berger, a British Columbia Supreme Court justice at the time, spent three years and $5 million on his landmark study of northern Canada and its relationship to the proposed Mackenzie Valley pipeline.

Two of Berger's judgments, written in that 1977 report, still reflect accurately today the unfulfilled aspirations of Canadian natives:

*"Natives insist on the right to determine their own future, to ensure their place, but not their assimilation, in Canadian life.

*"Special status for native people is an element of our constitutional tradition."

Former-prime minster Pierre Trudeau took vigorous exception to the second of Berger's principles, claiming: "Legal authority and governmental jurisdiction are not allocated in Canada on grounds that differentiate people on the basis of race."

The price of royal commissions has gone up substantially since Berger's time but two of his issues, the right to native self-determination and the right to native distinction in the Canadian constitution, are still unsettled.

More recent provincial investigations have proved the appalling lack of accommodation in the justice system for native Canadians in conflict with the law.

In Nova Scotia the Donald Marshall inquiry found an institutional conspiracy deprived a juvenile Micmac Indian of his rights and jailed him illegally for a murder he did not commit.

The administrators of the system believed the protection of their institutions was more important than the protection of the rights of an individual native who plainly did not understand the system confronting him, the Nova Scotia investigators reported.

In Alberta, two separate inquiries were released this year examining the relationship between natives and the criminal justice system, and both reported the authorities had an unacceptable series of biases against aboriginal people.

One commissioner, Judge Carl Rolf, went so far as to say the Indian Act should be abandoned, or at least drastically rewritten to extinguish the memories of "negative measures such as residential schooling, the pass system and attempted destruction of Indian spirituality (that) have fostered a distrust and anger toward the Indian Act."

This is the job the new royal commission on native affairs must sit down to -- a centuries old record of failed and dilatory attempts to liberate the native people from their marginalized colonial inheritance.

The answer to the commission's question has already been addressed by the Alberta task force on native justice.

"It is the opinion of the task force that the cultural differences between aboriginals and the dominant society are deep-rooted," the report states. "Clearly aboriginals are the victims of racism and discrimination...

"Most aboriginals are located at the low or bottom end of the economic scale. They have long memories and are unforgiving with respect to past injustices, most of which are real rather than perceived.

"Indians are wards of a paternalistic government which has changed its policies to meet different situation," the Alberta report concludes.

"The plight of the Indians is proof that the policies adopted have either been ineffective or have utterly failed."

Attachment #8: re-printed without permission from the Yukon News, Friday, May 3, 1991



Native leaders have reacted cooly to Brian Mulroney's offer of yet another royal commission on aboriginal issues.

Most are extremely skeptical about the federal government's latest ploy. And with good reason.

Here's a short list to explain why.

The government almost never follows through on the recommendations of its royal commissions.

Native people have already been subjected to several of them over the years, with few, if any, tangible, results.

Unless native people are given a big say in the selection of a chairman and its terms of reference, it will only rehash old ground. And who needs that.

The money would be better spent on settling native land claims or holding a first ministers' conference to address the entrenchment of aboriginal rights in the Constitution.

Mulroney dangled the royal commission carrot in front of Elijah Harper, the destroyer of the Meech Lake accord, last June in a vain attempt to get him on side. Harper, the only aboriginal member of the Manitoba legislature, refused and the offer was forgotten. Until now.

The Mohawks near Montreal who took up arms last summer to prevent their ancestral graveyard from being turned into a golf course have yet to et title to the disputed land.

Mohawks and their supporters are being prosecuted for a variety of criminal charges stemming from the lengthy standoff. Meanwhile, the white Quebecers who stoned a busload of women and children as they were leaving one of the reserves were let off scot-free by the courts.

Native political organizations, like the Council for Yukon Indians in Whitehorse, the Dene Nation in Yellowknife and the Tungavit Federation of Nunavut in Iqaluit, have had their core funding slashed to the marrow.

This has been done while they're trying to reach a comprehensive land claims agreement with Ottawa.

The negotiations in each of the three cases have dragged on for nearly 20 years, due largely to the government's intransigence and lack of commitment.

Native-run radio stations and newspapers across Canada have been completely cut off from federal financial support. This was done just when native groups were starting to demand justice with a united voice.

Harper has denounced the federal government as "totally lacking in credibility."

Judy Gingell of the CYI feels her people have been studied enough. "We want to look for solutions," she said. "We already know what the problems are."

Georges Erasmus of the Assembly of First Nations has called Mulroney a hypocrite and a master of doublespeak.

The skepticism that greeted Mulroney's latest announcement is thoroughly justified by experience. You just can't expect to fool native people indefinitely.