The Royal Commission on
Aboriginal Peoples (RCAP) issued its final report in November 1996. The five-volume,
4,000-page report covered a vast range of issues; its 440 recommendations called for
sweeping changes to the relationship between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people and
governments in Canada. In response, Aboriginal communities and organizations pressed for
action on the recommendations.
SOME MAJOR FINDINGS OF THE REPORT
The report centred on a vision of a new
relationship, founded on the recognition of Aboriginal peoples as self-governing nations
with a unique place in Canada. It set out a 20-year agenda for change, recommending new
legislation and institutions, additional resources, a redistribution of land and the
rebuilding of Aboriginal nations, governments and communities. Recognizing that autonomy
is not realistic without significant community development, RCAP called for early action
in four areas; healing, economic development, human resources development, and the
building of Aboriginal institutions. The Commissions implementation strategy
proposed that governments increase spending to reach $1.5 billion by Year 5 of the
strategy, and $2 billion in the subsequent 15 years. The report argued that the additional
investment over 20 years would save money in the long term.
Major recommendations included the
recognition of an Aboriginal
order of government, subject to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, with authority
over matters related to the good government and welfare of Aboriginal peoples and their
initiatives to address
social, education, health and housing needs, including the training of 10,000 health
professionals over a ten-year period, the establishment of an Aboriginal peoples
university, and recognition of Aboriginal nations authority over child welfare.
The report highlighted several realities
of importance to legislators and policy-makers. For example, today a significant
percentage of Aboriginal people in Canada live in urban areas. Questions of urban
self-government and disputes over government responsibility for the provision of services
are therefore becoming increasingly prominent. A second demographic fact is that the
Aboriginal population is currently growing at about twice the rate of the Canadian
population; over half the Aboriginal population is under the age of 25. This has
accentuated the need to address education, job creation, justice, health and recreation
for Aboriginal youth.
Response to the Report
The Royal Commission report was
generally welcomed by Aboriginal groups, although not without some disagreement, and
generated expectations for a government response. It received significant media attention
upon its release, but faded from the public agenda in the ensuing months. In December
1996, the Prime Minister said that the government needed time to study the recommendations
and would not issue a response prior to a general election. The then Minister of Indian
Affairs stated that it would be difficult to increase spending to the level proposed by
the Commission. In April 1997, the Assembly of First Nations held a national day of
protest to express its anger over perceived government inaction and the refusal of the
Prime Minister to meet with First Nations leaders to discuss the report.
In January 1998, the government responded
to the RCAP report. Gathering Strength: Canadas Aboriginal Action Plan set
out a policy framework for future government action based on four objectives, each
encompassing a number of elements.
Renewing the Partnership:
this commitment included an initial Statement of Reconciliation acknowledging historic
injustices to Aboriginal peoples and establishment of a $350-million "healing
fund" to address the legacy of abuse in the residential school system. Other elements
related to, inter alia, the preservation and promotion of Aboriginal languages;
increased public understanding of Aboriginal traditions and issues; inclusion of
Aboriginal partners in program design, development and delivery; government willingness to
explore how existing systems might be improved; and addressing the needs of urban
Aboriginal people more effectively.
Governance: initiatives identified under this heading pertained to, among other
things, developing the capacity of Aboriginal peoples to negotiate and implement
self-government; establishment of additional treaty commissions, as well as Aboriginal
governance centres; creation of an independent claims body in co-operation with First
Nations; a Métis enumeration program; funding Aboriginal womens organizations to
enhance womens participation in self-government processes; possible development of
an Aboriginal governments recognition instrument.
Developing a New Fiscal
Relationship: the governments goals in this area included working toward greater
stability, accountability and self-reliance; developing new financial standards with
public account and audit systems that conform to accepted accounting principles; assisting
First Nations governments to achieve greater independence through development of their own
revenue sources; enhanced data collection and information exchange.
Communities, People and Economics: this objective entailed devoting resources to
improving living standards in Aboriginal communities with respect to housing, water and
sewer systems; welfare reform to reduce dependence and focus on job creation; a five-year
Aboriginal Human Resources Development Strategy; expansion of the Aboriginal Head Start
program; education reform; increased focus on health-related needs and programs; improved
access to capital; and establishment of urban youth centres.
Pursuant to this framework, the Minister
and the Grand Chief of the Assembly of First Nations announced a preliminary action agenda
that outlined specific initiatives for immediate action and identified areas for future
action. The agenda was to be developed further by First Nations and federal departments to
include the resources that would be required from the federal government for
implementation and identification of potential changes in government organization.
At this early date, it is difficult to
predict the degree to which the governments Gathering Strength programs may
produce outcomes corresponding to those targeted in the RCAP reports principal
recommendations. In January 1999, the Minister of Indian Affairs and the Federal
Interlocutor for Métis and Non-Status Indians released Gathering Strength:
Canadas Aboriginal Action Plan - A Progress Report, Year One, in which
developments under the four RCAP headings outlined are reviewed. The accompanying news
release reported progress in several areas, noting as well the urgent need to implement
the Gathering Strength plan in view of the fact that social, economic and health
indicators in Aboriginal communities remain well below those in non-Aboriginal centres.
Other government departments participating in the Gathering Strength framework were
identified as Canadian Heritage, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, Correctional
Services Canada, Health Canada, Human Resources and Development Canada, Industry Canada,
the Department of Justice, Natural Resources Canada, the Solicitor General and Statistics