November 2022 - One of the most unique – and important – acts of reconciliation and political innovation in Canada is currently underway in Northern Ontario. Three First Nations – Animbiigoo Zaagi’igan Anishinaabek, Bingwi Neyaashi Anishinaabek, and Lac des Mille Lacs First Nation are seeking to rebuild their nations after years of being unable to use their reserve lands to build a stable foundation that can spur economic growth.
In recent years, the Government of Canada has owned up to its historical misdeeds, making high profile apologies and, much more significantly, taking practical and substantial steps to compensate communities whose rights were ignored. In the case of the Three First Nations, and others across Canada, this involves providing the funds needed to rebuild governance systems, social connections, and economic vitality, and providing the opportunity to secure a land base. This is remarkably complex and time-consuming work.
Consider what is involved. The First Nations, working within well-intentioned but ill-defined parameters set by the Government of Canada, must negotiate appropriate compensation for being denied their rights for decades, secure funding for government operations going forward, ensure access to economic development support, identify funding for culture, language, and education programs, find capital for land selection and infrastructure, establish, and sustain capacity development for the new governments. This is a comprehensive agenda.
Animbiigoo Zaagi’igan Anishinaabek, Bingwi Neyaashi Anishinaabek, and Lac des Mille Lacs First Nation have small administrative teams working intensively on a dazzling array of topics, which collectively will determine the fate and viability of the Three First Nations. This is nation-building, both for the three First Nations and for a national government trying hard to overcome its colonial and discriminatory past and to provide an equitable and just future for the Northern Ontario First Nations.
And there is more. Members are now scattered throughout Ontario and the rest of the country. Reconnecting and sustaining ties with members will be a formidable task. In addition, Animbiigoo Zaagi’igan Anishinaabek, Bingwi Neyaashi Anishinaabek, and Lac des Mille Lacs First Nation are wisely considering all manner of possible configurations, including possible co-location on a single re-established reserve, coordinated governance operations, and a collective economic development strategy.
Now, consider what is at stake. The Three First Nations have the much-delayed opportunity to address historical wrongs, but they have only a single chance to get an incredibly complex political and economic reorganization right. This is a common challenge facing Indigenous communities in Canada, whether they are negotiating a modern treaty, finalizing a specific legal claim, or resolving a compensation settlement involving the Government of Canada. They must push Ottawa as far as they can, but they absolutely need to ensure that they have the money, powers, and human resource capacity to sustain their members and their governments into the distant future.
When they get it right, and the modern treaties provide successful examples, First Nation communities can be set on a path toward autonomy, cultural renewal, and economic prosperity. When done poorly, as shown with the numbered treaties (Treaty 1 to 11) that failed to deliver on the promises made and accepted, the agreements can entrench marginalization, leaving First Nation peoples with limited power, few economic opportunities, and insufficient attention from government. Animbiigoo Zaagi’igan Anishinaabek, Bingwi Neyaashi Anishinaabek, and Lac des Mille Lacs First Nation have one chance to get these negotiations right and to secure final agreements that propel them toward cultural revitalization, economic prosperity, political autonomy and sustainable reconciliation with the people and communities of Northern Ontario and Canada.
The Three First Nations moved carefully and deliberately through a comprehensive and thoughtful planning process. Working closely with Northern Policy Institute and professional associates, Animbiigoo Zaagi’igan Anishinaabek, Bingwi Neyaashi Anishinaabek, and Lac des Mille Lacs First Nation examined best practises in economic development, emergent Indigenous political structures in Canada and internationally, comparative models of compensation and long-term funding, and effective strategies for Indigenous capacity building, among other topics. They sought to integrate political, economic, and governance issues, work within the Government of Canada’s political and financial frameworks and develop strong support among their memberships and elected officials for a crucial stage in the development and redevelopment of their Nations.
For generations, British and Canadian authorities imposed their political and legal will on Indigenous peoples in Canada. These remarkably resilient peoples, though damaged by such intrusions as residential schools, the interventions of the Indian Act and Indian agents, fought back, determined to win recognition and the resources they needed and deserved. The effort underway by Animbiigoo Zaagi’igan Anishinaabek, Bingwi Neyaashi Anishinaabek, and Lac des Mille Lacs First Nation is flying well below the political radar in Canada. But the evidence-based approach to nation-building, made more urgent by the processes of re-establishing a “cancelled” First Nation, is essential. This process is how and where a reconciled, fair, and just Canada is being, slowly and painfully established, but with a level of Indigenous determination creativity that the rest of the country would do well to emulate.
Dr. Ken Coates is Canada Research Chair in Regional Innovation, University of Saskatchewan. He has worked with the Three First Nations and NPI on this initiative
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