The formation of a Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples was announced by Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and Minister of Indian Affairs Tom Siddon in 1991. Its final report was tabled in the House of Commons on November 21, 1996 by Prime Minister Jean Chrétien's Minister of Indian Affairs Ronald A. Irwin. This tidbit about the expected effectiveness of its work was contained in an editorial in The Edmonton Journal, Thursday, April 25, 1991: "Royal commissions are Canada's favourite substitute for action." It has proven to be an accurate prediction. The Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples has proven to be a royal waste of money. September 13, 2005
December 13, 1996 Halifax Herald
First Nations Report: expensive exercise in futility
First Nations Report: expensive exercise in futility
The Royal Commission on the Donald Marshall Jr. prosecution, whose final report issued December 1989, conducted a full-scale public investigation into the operations of the justice system in Nova Scotia. During its widely publicized public hearings, it revealed in gory detail the racially motivated injustices which were dealt by the justice system to people of colour, especially Blacks and Mi'kmaqs. This exercise was expensive, but by educating the public about how racism in the federal and provincial justice systems perverted justice, it created the right social environment for wide-scale reform of the system.
Thus, with the Marshall Commission results in mind, I was filled with hope when the federal government in 1991 announced the creation of a Royal Commission to investigate the unfavourable relationship between First Nations peoples and the rest of Canadian society. Here, I thought, via the investigations of a high-profile Royal Commission, is a golden opportunity to educate the country's citizenry about the extent of the racial oppression suffered by our peoples at the hands of bureaucrats, politicians and society in general, and about the heritage of despair and hardship it has left in our communities.
The end result envisioned: with ignorance replaced by enlightenment, the chances of securing widespread public support for the drastic changes needed to engineer the evolution of First Nations into a dynamic component of Canadian society would improve to the extent that the option was possible.
Talk about wistful thinking! Very quickly, the powers that be decided that there would be no high-profile, full Commission hearings; instead many low-profile hearings were to be held by one or two uninformed members of the Commission in widely varying locations across the country. These little hearings attracted as much media attention and public discussion as a crow flying over the Shubenacadie River would attract.
By early 1992, after observing how the Commission intended to proceed in conducting its investigation, I lost any hope of seeing anything other than a smattering of Canadians being educated from the Commission's endeavours, and consequently foresaw very few positive results stemming from its deliberations. This bothered me to such an extent that, in frustration, I, in my capacity as Executive Director of the Confederacy of Mainland Micmacs, communicated my feelings to the Minister of Indian Affairs and the Prime Minister and, as the publisher of the Micmac/Maliseet News, in June of 1992, wrote and published a scratching commentary about it. I'll share a quote from that commentary with you:
"The Royal Commission charged with investigating the cause and effect of Native poverty and disenchantment in Canada is giving every indication that it will prove to be painfully inadequate for the task...It was the expectation of many of our leaders to see an in-depth, far-reaching and widely publicized public examination of the issues that have caused our people centuries of pain and hardship. Instead, it appears we will be getting nothing but a modern version of past reports, which have done nothing but serve up impossible dreams."
For the commission to have effectively educated Canadians about the mistreatment of Natives, high profile hearings, with all Commissioners present, needed to be held in each province and territory, including provincial capitals. Such things as the centuries of racist persecution of First Nation's citizens by society in general, and in particular by present and former governments of this country, needed to be focused upon and publicly examined. Ditto for the genocide that was practised by the British in this neck of the woods, and the insidious effects of the negative stereotyping and paternalism Natives suffered, and are still suffering, and so on.
This would have given the non-Indian population and its news media a chance to participate. The experience, hopefully, would have dispelled many of their negative, stereotyped images of Native Peoples, especially the one where we are held responsible for creating our problems.
However, now that the Commission's overdue and low-profile report has been submitted to the feds for examination, let’s see what it accomplished. The latest poll on the subject tells it all.
Five years ago, there was solid majority support among the general public for positive changes by Canada in its relationships with First Nations. By 1994, it was close to being a minority; 46 percent believed that Natives were unreasonable with land claims and 40 percent believed Natives had only themselves to blame for their problems. By 1996, 54 percent believed that Natives were being unreasonable with land claims and, from personal experience, I can say that it’s probable today that a majority believe we are responsible for our problems.
Quite an accomplishment. The Royal Commission spent $58 million of public funds, many have enriched themselves considerably from participating in its deliberations, and things have gotten far worse for First Nations Peoples. Sounds all to familiar. Maybe we will have to wait for Divine intervention to get a smidgen of justice in this country.
In the meantime, our Chiefs and Councillors had better begin to appreciate the value of constructive and effective public relations efforts and put it at the head of their priorities. If they don't, it’s only a matter of time before First Nations Peoples find themselves again forced to live in the sub-standard conditions of yesteryear!
Daniel N. Paul