During Michael Ignatieff's rise to the top of the Liberal Party, there was a great deal of comment on his academic career in Britain and the United States and speculation about whether he could be a new philosopher-king. Much is expected of a leader who has made a career of analyzing the world's most pressing problems. He will need all of his analytical skills--and more--if he hopes to make inroads into the problems facing Canada's Aboriginal population.
Few Canadians fully appreciate the nature of the challenges facing Aboriginal people. This is not because Canadians are ignorant of the history of Aboriginal people in this country--though many have a great deal more to learn. Nor is it because of the complicated web of First Nations, Metis and Inuit interests that snares even the best-intentioned. Rather it is because the Canadian federation has structural barriers that prevent a robust response from ever being mounted.
The Constitution Act of 1982 allocates responsibility for "Indians, and lands reserved for Indians" to the federal government, and the provision of social services to the provinces and territories. What happens, then, when Aboriginal people live in urban areas? Does the federal government still have responsibility for these "Indians," or do the provinces and territories? The practical consequence is that each jurisdiction points its finger at the other, and little gets done.
The question of who is responsible matters a great deal when you consider that 54 per cent of all Aboriginal people, according to the 2006 census, live in cities. More than half! The impression that most Canadians have of Canada's Aboriginal people--of pressing social problems on remote reserves or the troubles facing Inuit in the high Arctic--is outmoded. The more common Aboriginal reality is someone trying to be an active participant in urban life in Canada.
The Conservative Party came out forcefully in 2005 with a commitment to address urban Aboriginal issues. During the 2005-06 federal election campaign, the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples (CAP), the national voice of off-reserve Aboriginal people, posted to its website a lengthy letter in which Stephen Harper promised that a Conservative government would undertake significant work in this area. CAP National Chief Patrick Brazeau is now sitting in the Senate, but we have no more activity on the urban Aboriginal agenda than we did under the Liberals.
Will Ignatieff's team do better? The early...