It is two generations since the modern Aboriginal movement was born in response to the Trudeau government's 1969 White Paper calling for an end to any special legal status for indigenous peoples in Canada. It is one generation since section 35 of Trudeau's new constitution recognized and affirmed the "existing aboriginal and treaty rights of the aboriginal peoples of Canada." Those generations have seen a remarkable increase in the legal recognition of Aboriginal identity and Aboriginal economic clout over resources. At the same time, improvements in human development--life expectancy, educational attainment and living standards for the average person--have been disappointingly slow.
Two stories in 2014 illustrate the gap. On June 26, the Supreme Court of Canada released its most important Aboriginal title decision since 1997's Delgamuukw. For the first time, the Court confirmed that an Aboriginal group, the Tsilhqot'in, had title to land in British Columbia: an area of more than 1,700 square kilometres in and around the Nemaiah Valley in B.C.'s Central Interior. The Court of Appeal had recognized constitutionally protected rights to hunt and trap in the area, but not title to the land itself. The Tsilhqot'in decision suggests that use of a vast tract of land by mobile hunting and gathering peoples will give rise to a continuing right to control economic development and enjoy its fruits today, unless extinguished by treaty. Since the vast majority of B.C.'s land surface has never been subject to treaties, this unquestionably means a drastic change in the effective property rights over that land. It is hard to imagine a more vivid illustration of growing Aboriginal legal and economic power.
The second most dramatic event in indigenous politics this year was the May 2 resignation of Shawn Atleo as Grand Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, as a result of controversy over his support for Bill C-33, the draft First Nations Control of First Nations Education Act. Atleo's resignation and the controversy around the Harper government's attempts to reform on-reserve education highlights the less encouraging aspect of recent Aboriginal history. Aboriginal students continue to trail non-Aboriginal students in academic achievement, with the gap higher in on-reserve schools, and higher still in on-reserve schools on the Prairies. The Harper government's attempt at a solution, whatever its merits, is stalled, and nothing else appears on the horizon.