The contributions of Canada’s Indigenous (Aboriginal) peoples to the country’s rich culture and history are well known worldwide. Yet by the 2000s the need for reconciliation between the Government of Ontario and its 300,000 Aboriginal citizens – First Nations, Métis and Inuit – was acute.
First there existed increasing recognition of an abysmal history of disenfranchisement and unjust treatment. This included a past countrywide system of “residential schools” that saw more than 150,000 Aboriginal children taken from their families to non-Aboriginal institutions that we now know included physical and sexual abuse. Though many communities have succeeded despite these challenges, the repercussions continue to haunt many others. In 2009, UNICEF Canada noted that Canada had recently ranked third of 177 countries in the world in the UN’s Human Development Index, while Canada’s First Nations would rank 68th. And according to the federal government’s Community Wellbeing Index, of the 'bottom 100' Canadian communities in 2006, 96 were First Nations.
Also contributing to increased awareness was a growing body of Canadian legal jurisprudence.
One way out of these conditions is reasonable compensation for development on traditional and treaty territory. In recent decades and particularly since 2004, the Supreme Court of Canada and lower courts have issued rulings identifying the need for governments and business to consult with Aboriginal peoples on matters that have the potential to impact treaty or Aboriginal rights.
In Canada, treaty and Aboriginal rights are protected by section 35 of the Constitution Act, 1982. Yet in practice, consultation of Aboriginal peoples by governments and industry has often fallen short. This shortfall has resulted in missed opportunities for socio-economic progress, and often, in protest.
The tipping point may have begun with a 1995 land dispute at Ipperwash Provincial Park. Dudley George, a member of the Chippewas of Kettle and Stony Point First Nation, was shot by police and died. Mr. George was the first Aboriginal person to be killed in a land rights dispute in Canada since the 19th century. His tragic death captured Canada’s attention.
In 2003, the Ontario government commissioned Justice Sidney Linden to lead a public inquiry into events at Ipperwash. The Report of the Ipperwash Inquiry released on May 31, 2007 provided 100 recommendations. Among them was the establishment of the province’s first-ever standalone Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs.
Justice Linden stated that creating the ministry would “herald a commitment by the province to a new, constructive relationship with Aboriginal peoples.”
The challenge: creation of Ontario’s first Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs with a mandate to improve the plight of Aboriginal peoples, and then creative implementation of its inaugural mandate, including innovative initiatives to increase public awareness across the Ontario Public Service and to begin reconciliation with Aboriginal peoples in Ontario.
At the core of a democracy is the recognition of all citizens’ rights, particularly when those citizens are Aboriginal peoples. The challenge to Ontario’s Public Service to quickly improve on the province’s long-term record was both compelling and daunting.