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Opening statement at the First Ministers' Conference on the Rights of Aboriginal Peoples, April 2-3, 1985


It is an honour and an important duty for me to participate with you in this unique undertaking, this Conference of First Ministers on constitutional matters relating to the Inuit, the Indians, and the Métis of Canada. Although many of you have attended the two previous conferences, this is my first. As such, I want to set out my objectives for what I consider to be an essential undertaking for our federation.

It is not my intention, nor that of the new federal government, simply to follow the course which has been charted before. I believe there is new ground which can be explored, new understandings which can be reached.

In these two days of meetings, I wish to affirm and demonstrate the government's commitment to the further identification, definition and constitutional protection of the rights of the aboriginal peoples. I look to the goodwill of all participants to produce tangible progress by the time we adjourn tomorrow. I will make specific commitments on behalf of the federal government. I look for specific commitments from the provincial and territorial governments and from the representatives of the aboriginal peoples.

Given Canada's long-standing traditions of fairness, tolerance and understanding, I know that all Canadians expect this of me and of each of us.

My objective at the Regina Conference on the Economy, and again at the National Economic Conference, was to encourage the key actors in the Canadian economy to recast their dialogue in terms that made issues into shared concerns, not jurisdictional disputes. And so no one should be surprised that one of my objectives for this Conference is to encourage all participants to accept their share of responsibility in the search for new understandings. You know of my commitment to national reconciliation. You know of my determination to breathe new life into and restore harmony to federal-provincial relations. We have seen the advantages of moving to consensus and the new hope it offers us.

To all participants, I want to say that we in the federal government will demonstrate our new approach at this Conference by not surprising you with initiatives for which you are not prepared, nor adopting pressure tactics to move you into positions with which you are not agreed. We will be up front and open.

To the aboriginal leaders, I want to say that, having been a labour negotiator, I know what it means to be sitting on one side of the table, looking at powerful interests on the other. But this is not the situation today. We are here together to try to come to grips with problems common to us all.

The Current Situation And Its Background

It is important that we have a common understanding of why we are here. In 1982, after years of attempting to be heard, the Indian, Inuit and Métis peoples convinced governments that there was unfinished business on the national agenda fundamental to their future and to the future of Canada.

You know, I am here today not only as the Prime Minister, but as the Member of Parliament for Manicouagan, one of the largest ridings in Canada, home to Cree, Montagnais, Naskapi, Huron and Inuit. I take pride in the fact that it was Gaston McKenzie, a Montagnais leader, who seconded my nomination as the Progressive Conservative candidate there.

I am well aware of the issues and problems faced by the aboriginal peoples I represent, as well as those faced by aboriginal peoples across Canada. As Prime Minister, I have a responsibility to lead, a responsibility to initiate change. And so I say to you that I will spare no effort to establish the conditions to bring about the changes which must occur. It is to create change that we are engaged in this process, a process which can be frustrating, slow, and tortuous. Yet, we cannot afford to abandon it simply because the task is too daunting or because vested interests will be disturbed. On the contrary, we must renew our efforts.

It is an important task that Canada embarked on in 1982, when three articles were included in the Constitution Act dealing specifically with the aboriginal peoples. In doing so, a commitment was made that we were going to engage in fundamental, substantial and positive change respecting aboriginal peoples. In 1983, governments signed an accord which, among other things, extended constitutional protection to land claims agreements and committed governments to the principle that before any amendment is made to the Constitution respecting aboriginal peoples, a conference would be convened in which they would participate.

Although the 1984 Conference did not produce tangible results, new foundations have since been established during the course of the preparatory meetings with Mr. Crosbie and Mr. Crombie. I have followed these meetings with interest and noted the positive will demonstrated by all participants to get the job done, to put forward new ideas, to challenge existing concepts, to draw upon specific experiences, to move toward a consensus.

Ontario, Manitoba and Saskatchewan have made important contributions to moving discussions forward on all elements of our endeavour. I note as well the significant contribution by the governments of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick to the discussions on self-government for aboriginal peoples and to those on the clarification of existing provisions relating to equality between aboriginal men and women. Alberta has brought to these discussions its useful experience based on a relationship with the Métis which remains unique in Canada, under the provincial Métis Betterment Act.

I understand that British Columbia, Newfoundland and Prince Edward Island, among other provinces, have stressed the importance of a full and open exchange of views on aboriginal matters, and I welcome it. I was pleased to learn that the National Assembly of Quebec recently adopted a resolution recognizing the special rights of aboriginal peoples. The two territories have offered us their special insights and inspiration as they explore changes in their political institutions.

For their part, the representatives of the aboriginal peoples have articulated their concerns in a frank and open manner and have contributed constructively to the preparatory discussions.

And so it is no surprise to me that many participants have come to this table expressing a willingness to consider constitutional provisions relating to self-government. The goodwill and momentum which has been generated over the last few months will sustain us in the difficult deliberations ahead and will lead us to concrete results.

Relations Between Governments And Aboriginal Peoples In Canada

The aboriginal leaders present here today and their colleagues at the tribal council, band, community or association level, together represent the descendants of the original peoples of Canada. They have persevered and maintained their cultural identity through many years of adversity. This is part of our national heritage, part of how we define ourselves as a society, something to be celebrated, not ignored.

There is another side, however, to this heritage of tenacity and perseverance. In describing the current situation, I could read you the litany of social indicators on the disparities suffered by aboriginal peoples in unemployment, in lives of despair ending in alcoholism or suicide, the waste in human potential caused by inadequate educational facilities and substandard housing. But I do not want to trade in sorrow. We are familiar enough with the statistics and I know some of you live with them on a day-to-day basis and see them reflected in the eyes of your children.

These social indicators are symptoms of an underlying problem which we must address. They are social indicators which we here in this room can change.

There are those who would say that the answer is more welfare. More social workers. More programs. But that is the way to dependency and misery. As was said by George Manuel, the Shuswap leader whose work in Indian politics has contributed greatly to our being here today, "Indians are not seeking the best welfare system in the world."

So, if more welfare is not the answer, then what is? I say the answer lies in aboriginal peoples assuming more responsibility for their own affairs, setting their own priorities, determining their own programs. As Zebedee Nungak of the Inuit Committee on National Issues said at the ministerial meeting held last month in Toronto, our task here is to do "some constructive damage to the status quo in Canada." We are here to chart a new course and to set out on it.

I have come across Hugh Brody's book, Maps and Dreams, about the Beaver Indian people in northern British Columbia. It is the title which sticks in my mind because that is very much what this is all about: maps and dreams. Maps to find our way to Canada's twenty-first century. Dreams to guide and sustain us.

The Canada we are building for the twenty-first century must have room for self-governing aboriginal peoples. Where our on-going arrangements have failed to leave room for aboriginal peoples to control their own affairs, we must find room. Canada is big enough for us all. We need to rethink our understanding of Canada, so that the aboriginal peoples too will have their own space in our own time.

Self-Government For Aboriginal Peoples

Different forms of self-government already exist in Canada and most Canadians take them for granted. Apart from electing their federal and provincial governments, Canadians run their own school boards, village and town councils. Canadians have also created regional governments when urban centres became too complex to be administered by a single city council.

In Canada, we assume that we can participate in the charting of our destinies, in determining how we are represented, in holding our representatives accountable. But the Indians, Inuit and Métis peoples do not feel they have the same degree of participation.

In Canada, we assume that our cultural and linguistic backgrounds and traditions will be respected, even cherished and enhanced. But Indian, Inuit and Métis peoples do not have this assurance, nor the power to determine their own cultural development. In fact, there were times when aspects of their cultures were subject to legal sanctions and suppression.

The key to change is self-government for aboriginal peoples within the Canadian federation. We are a cautious people and self-government is a term which is worrisome to some of us. But self-government is not something that I fear. It is not an end in itself, but rather a means to reach common goals. It is the vehicle, not the destination. The challenge and satisfaction is in the journey itself.

The federal government's approach to self-government for aboriginal peoples takes account of these realities, of the inventiveness and creativity that Canadians have always shown in developing their democratic institutions. It is through self-government that a people can maintain the sense of pride and self-worth which is necessary for productive, happy lives.

As a Canadian and as Prime Minister, I fully recognize and agree with the emphasis that the aboriginal peoples place on having their special rights inserted into the highest law of the land, protected from arbitrary legislative action. Constitutional protection for the principle of self-government is an overriding objective because it is the constitutional manifestation of a relationship, an unbreakable social contract between aboriginal peoples and their governments.

In seeking constitutional change, I recognize that this alone cannot resolve social and economic problems. Constitutional change is not enough to reduce disparities and correct injustices. Rather, improvements to the economic and social circumstances of aboriginal peoples must be pursued at the same time as changes to our Constitution are sought to define the rights of aboriginal peoples. Action is required on both fronts and these two sets of endeavours, while separate, are mutually supportive.

The new federal government has already initiated actions in regard to aboriginal peoples leading to increased self-government and to increased well-being. In doing so, it has sought the cooperation, participation and contribution of the provinces, territories and aboriginal groups in ensuring the success of these endeavours. These are smaller steps to larger dreams. They are important signals with real significance. Our early track record has already been posted.

Since September, my colleague John Crosbie has ably directed preparations for this Conference by advancing constitutional proposals and exploring possible avenues of compromise with all participants.

For his part, my colleague David Crombie has undertaken a number of important initiatives. He has stated the government's intention to support the political evolution of the Northwest Territories in a way which will lead to the building of Nunavut in the eastern Arctic and give the aboriginal peoples of the western Arctic protection and a strong voice. He has also begun to explore models of self-government as well as changes to policy and legislation that may be needed to create or enhance those models. He is considering block funding through which Indian governments would have more freedom to determine their own priorities and establish their own programs.

He has introduced a process of renovation of Treaty 8, which involves Indian bands living mostly in northern Alberta, Saskatchewan and British Columbia, to deal with past grievances and to establish a sound relationship to move into the future. This renovation process should provide us with a guide for building a positive, constructive relationship with other aboriginal communities. The Minister has also undertaken an examination of the claims settlement process, giving consideration to alternatives to current policy. He has begun discussions with provinces to address the problems encountered by many urban aboriginal persons.

These are critical initiatives; they underpin our constitutional discussions and root them in reality.

My Expectations For This Conference

Canadians have rightfully objected to excessive intrusion of government into their lives. Governmental control is resented by us all. Yet the most regulated, controlled and intruded-upon in Canada are the aboriginal peoples. One of the changes which must be made in the current state of affairs is the removal of these excessive interventions. The alternative  --  which is our main agenda item  --  is self-government.

Governments require a better grasp of aboriginal peoples' needs and aspirations. If they demonstrate sufficient creativity and flexibility, then all of Canada will benefit from aboriginal peoples who are secure in their own cultures and full partners in Canadian society.

Aboriginal peoples need a better understanding of the constraints faced by governments, one which takes into account the realities of the current economic environment.

Canada's aboriginal peoples face difficult choices in the years to come. They will have to decide what mix of traditional and modern life they find appropriate to meet their needs. These are trade-offs that they will have to make as they seek to define their rightful place in Canadian society. But they alone can strike that critical balance between old and new.

This is a challenging prospect for aboriginal peoples and for the rest of us. And if this prospect is to become a reality, it will call for an act of faith and imagination on all sides. The aboriginal peoples will have to be able to count on the continuing understanding and support of governments as they move toward an ever-greater control of their lives and circumstances. We all look forward to a new sharing of responsibility. We all look forward to a new life for the aboriginal peoples of Canada, one in which the opportunity to release creativity and entrepreneurship is fostered and enhanced.

But this cannot be achieved at the expense of cultural identity. I see the aboriginal peoples making their special contribution to Canadian society as Indians, Inuit and Métis. There is no need to sever one's roots.

For those who wish to remain within their communities, that choice should not preclude their ability to lead a rewarding life. The Indian reserve, the Métis settlement and the Inuit community must remain places of retreat and spiritual renewal for those who opt to live in an environment away from the one into which they were born. There are Inuit on Arctic drilling rigs, Métis farmers on the prairies and Indian lawyers in southern cities. I know Billy Diamond of the James Bay Cree who heads a school board and an airline and Mary Simon who spoke out for Inuit interests at the National Economic Conference.

As Mr. Richard Nerysoo pointed out at Regina last February, in reference to the activity in the Northwest Territories on natural resources development, it is not a case of newer technologies destroying older ways, but rather of the new co-existing with the old.

And a renewed sense of self-assurance and self-worth, flowing from the acceptance both by aboriginal peoples and governments in Canada of mutual responsibilities and common objectives, is essential to reduce poverty and dependency. It will enable Indians, Inuit and Métis to play their full roles as active and important contributors to the national economy and as holders of a unique and special place in the national mosaic.

The challenges we face at this Conference will test our wisdom and generosity of spirit as political leaders. These challenges, moreover, will test our ability to translate political will into practical action.

As you know, the Constitution Act, 1982 and the subsequent Accord of 1983 require that four aboriginal constitutional conferences be convened in the five-year period 1982 to 1987. In effect, then, this Conference represents the mid-point in the aboriginal constitutional process.

Ministers and aboriginal leaders have developed an agenda which, in my view, shows great promise. Over the next two days, we will be discussing self-government for aboriginal peoples, equality between aboriginal men and women and a mandate for more intensive discussions in the next two years. The measure of agreement reached here will determine the shape and pace of events to come over the next two years.

I believe it is within our grasp to make this Conference not just the mid-point, but the turning point in our efforts to identify and define the rights of aboriginal peoples.

Let us decide at this Conference that our Constitution shall acknowledge that aboriginal peoples have a right to self-government.

Let us agree that we will work out together, over time and on a case-by-case basis, the different means, constitutional and otherwise, that will be required to respond to the special circumstances of different aboriginal communities. Such an achievement would be historic in nature, the first step toward a new relationship between self-governing aboriginal communities and governments in Canada, a relationship upon which we may hope to build the mutual trust and confidence that has eluded us for so long.

The Iroquois teach us that it is the obligation of chiefs and elders in councils such as this to keep in mind the unborn generations whose faces are coming toward us. Decisions are to be made with the well-being of the seventh generation in mind. That wisdom should impress upon us the seriousness of our task in these discussions as we work together toward creating a Canada for the twenty-first century, for the descendents of all those who sit around this table unto the seventh generation.

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Source: Mulroney, Martin Brian. Notes for an opening statement by the Right Honourable Brian Mulroney, Prime Minister of Canada, First Ministers' Conference the Rights of Aboriginal Peoples, Ottawa, April 2-3, 1985. Ottawa : [Government of Canada], 1985. 21p.


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