Learning from the Kelowna Accord

Published on July 6, 2015, in Policy Options

If you open a newspaper or listen to the radio, it is easy to get discouraged about the relationship between indigenous communities and the government of Canada. Aboriginal Canadians lag far behind the Canadian average on almost every socio-economic indicator, including housing, education, unemployment, child poverty, and health and well-being. Many blame the federal, provincial and territorial governments for not doing enough to address these issues, and they criticize these governments for failing to establish good working relationships with indigenous communities. These are not new criticisms; almost all federal, provincial and territorial governments in the past have been criticized for their inability to partner with indigenous communities to create mutually beneficial public policies.

What is the solution? This year marks the 10-year anniversary of the ill-fated Kelowna Accord, a comprehensive, multiyear and multilevel initiative that was designed to forge a new, workable relationship and lasting change for Canada’s indigenous populations. Shortly after its signing, however, the accord was all but abandoned by the incoming Conservative government. Since then, we have seen social and economic conditions in many indigenous communities worsen and the relationship between Aboriginal Canadians and the Crown further deteriorate. Although the Kelowna Accord was abandoned 10 years ago, we argue that the process used by former prime minister Paul Martin to negotiate the accord may be the only way forward for improving the relationship between indigenous communities and the Crown.

Premier Kathleen Wynne should take on the mantle of reconciliation

 Published June 15, 2015, in the Toronto Star.

Earlier this month, Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne criticized the federal government for delivering a “disappointing” response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 94 recommendations. By doing so, Wynne was engaging in what has become an almost institutionalized form of doing politics in Canada. Like many premiers before her, she chose to criticize the prime minister and the federal government for inaction rather than taking action herself.

Although coverage of the report almost exclusively focused on the role of the federal government, a closer reading of the executive summary suggests that there is ample room for provincial and territorial governments to embark on reconciliation on their own. In other words, this issue doesn’t have to suffer the death of a thousand intergovernmental meetings like many other issues in the past.

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Why Makayla Sault was allowed to die

Published Jan. 27, 2015, in the Toronto Star

Like many Canadians, I was saddened to hear about the death of Makayla Sault, the 11-year-old girl who died after choosing traditional aboriginal medicine over chemotherapy to treat her leukemia. Unlike the majority of commentators in the media, however, I was not outraged by her death or by the refusal of the courts to choose provincial legislation over Aboriginal rights. Instead, this outcome was simply the logical product of how Canada has chosen to balance and protect different and competing individual and group rights.

The Charter of Rights and Freedoms gives all of us a set of individual rights by virtue of being citizens of Canada. At the same time, some Canadian citizens enjoy additional rights that accrue to them on the basis of their membership in one or more demographic or cultural groups. For instance, French-speaking Canadians have the right to communicate with the federal government in French whereas I, as a Filipino-Canadian, do not have the right to use Tagalog, a Filipino dialect, to do the same.

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Francophone rights are not the only group rights protected by our constitutional and legal order. Others include gender, religion and Aboriginal rights, all of which seek to protect historically vulnerable groups in ways unique to each case.

Aboriginal rights have particularly complex origins, rooted as they are in the many historical and modern treaties signed with the Crown, but also in a number of pre- and post-Confederation constitutional documents like the Royal Proclamation of 1763 and the Constitution Act of 1982. As a result, Aboriginal rights empower their holders with a unique legal and moral basis to protect their traditional and evolving cultures, customs and internal constitutional orders in a myriad of ways. In Canadian law, we refer to this basis as Aboriginal self-government or self-determination.

So, in the case of Makayla Sault and other similar situations, legislation like the Child and Family Service Act can rightly and justly be ignored by Indigenous community leaders and members. The special group rights that Indigenous groups have through Canada’s Constitution and through their treaties with us means that they have the right to make unilateral decisions affecting their communities and members within the confines of their traditional and evolving customs and practices.

In many ways, then, the death of Makayla Sault is not as outrageous and illogical as most mainstream commentators portray. Instead, it very accurately reflects a legal and political reality that is consistent with Canada’s approach to human rights. Our country recognizes that all Canadians, including Indigenous peoples, have individual and group rights, and that different groups, by virtue of their inherent differences, also have different or asymmetrical sets of rights.

Some Canadians may chafe at this analysis and see it as being the root of the “Aboriginal problem” in this country. All of us, however, need to realize and accept this logic if we hope to build a respectful and just relationship with Indigenous peoples. This is especially true if we believe that the multicultural and multinational character of Canada is worth protecting.

Missing Aboriginal Women and the Canadian State

This is a topic I don’t know very much about except what the statistics indicate: that this is a major problem in Canada and that it’s clear that action is needed.  But what kind of action?

The popular answer seems to be that the federal government should hold a national inquiry.  Critics counter by saying that there is already a large body of research out there and so there’s no need for another study.

Harper’s original response was that this issue was a criminal one, rather than one based in sociological issues.

So what should the federal government do? I think the government needs to act, at least symbolically, but ideally with real action.

If critics are right that there are already many studies available, then a national inquiry is not an answer.

In terms of real action, I think meeting with the provinces, the territories and Aboriginal governments and stakeholders at a series of roundtables is certainly one viable course of action and should be pursued.  Here, the participants could develop a national strategy based on existing research.

In terms of symbolic action, Harper needs to go old school.  He needs to deliver a rousing speech in Parliament, like some of the great parliamentarians, and address the Canadian people on this important issue.  Take a page from the residential school apology and use Parliament to address the nation about the importance of this problem and his desire to address it.



Too many strings attached to aboriginal funding

Published June 21, 2014, in the Waterloo Region Record.

Among the cacophony of aboriginal voices demanding to be heard in this country, there seems to be at least two dominant and recurring themes.

First, if you are going to pursue an activity that directly affects aboriginal interests, then you need to engage in meaningful consultations with those communities. Second, if you want to fix the deplorable living conditions found on many native reserves, then you need to provide adequate funding.

This funding must be comparable to what exists for non-aboriginal communities, and it must be provided with “no strings attached.”

For many Canadians, these demands may seem odd and unsettling. However, there are several good reasons why governments and societal actors should take them seriously.

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First Nations communities should explore municipal partnerships

Published on Mar. 27, 2014, in The Waterloo Region Record.

It’s no secret that many aboriginal communities across Canada are underserviced and underfunded.

Media reports over the last several years have highlighted the lack of adequate funding for on-reserve education, clean water, housing, and health services, among other things.

Earlier this year, a story surfaced about a house fire on a reserve in northern Saskatchewan. Commentators noted how a lack of financial support from the federal government for proper training and equipment had directly contributed to the death of two young boys. As a result of that tragedy, First Nations’ leaders have called for the federal government to increase funding to on-reserve communities for proper fire protection services.

In many ways, these demands make sense. Aboriginal governments frequently lack the fiscal tools to raise sufficient revenue to pay for these services, and so federal and provincial money is crucial to building healthy and safe aboriginal communities.

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Let aboriginals own their land

Published Nov. 13, 2013, in the National Post

The Nisga’a in B.C. have long been trailblazers and pioneers. During the 1970s, it was their activism on the land and in the courts that led to the legal recognition of aboriginal title in Canada. In 1998, they were the first aboriginal group in B.C. to complete a comprehensive land claims agreement.

Last week, they again made history by creating the first individually-held fee simple interests on aboriginal lands. As a result, the Nisga’a citizens who receive these fee simple interests will have the same type of property rights that Canadians have off-reserve. That means they can sell or lease their land or bequeath it in a will to whomever they wish. They can also use their land to secure a loan or mortgage to build a house or start a business, thus generating much needed economic development and capital for their communities.

Some critics argue that fee simple property rights should be opposed because it could lead to the erosion of a community’s land base. But the Nisga’a initiative has several safeguards built into it.

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Don’t exclude market-based solutions in addressing aboriginal poverty

Published June 20, 2013, in The Waterloo Region Record.

Aboriginal people are one of the most impoverished demographic groups in Canada, and over the last several years, there has been a vigorous debate on how to address this seemingly unending cycle of poverty.

Recently, a consensus has emerged that the solution to the “aboriginal problem” is not to be found in market-based solutions, such as private property reform. Instead, it’s argued that aboriginal communities must more actively assert their treaty and self-government rights by using conventional and protest-style political action to force Canada to treat them fairly. Indeed, these were some of the key messages that came out of the Idle No More movement that dominated the headlines last year.

To some extent, these experts are right. Aboriginal groups must be more assertive in protecting their rights and interests. As well, market forces have sometimes wreaked havoc on aboriginal communities in Canada and the United States, leaving behind an awful legacy of poverty and political disengagement.

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Dr. Alcantara Appears on Alberta Primetime: Improving Aboriginal Representation

Broadcasted June 3, 2013, on Alberta Primetime.

The City of Edmonton signs a new agreement to improve aboriginal participation in civic issues. Is it a sign of progress in aboriginal engagement? LISPOP Associate Dr. Christopher Alcantara appears to give his thoughts on the matter. You can watch the video by clicking here.

Mixing Politics and Business in the Canadian Arctic: Inuit Corporate Governance in Nunavik and the Inuvialuit Settlement Region

Authors: Gary N. Wilson and Christopher Alcantara

Published December 2012 in Canadian Journal of Political Science.

Abstract: Over the past three decades, Inuit economic development corporations (IEDCs) have played an important role in preparing the Inuit regions of Nunavik in northern Québec and the Inuvialuit Settlement Region in the Northwest Territories for self-government. In addition to building vital capacity through the provision of services, programs and economic opportunities, IEDCs have also represented their respective regions in self-government negotiations with other levels of government. This corporate-led governance approach, which we call Inuit corporate governance, provides Aboriginal groups such as the Inuit with a de facto form of self-government and the opportunity to develop economic and political capacity in advance of adopting a more comprehensive and formal self-government arrangement. It also challenges existing assumptions about the relationship between Aboriginal peoples and the liberal–capitalist order that underpins the Canadian state.

UPDATE: Apparently, our article has been shortlisted for the 2013 McMenemy Prize, given annually to the best paper published in English or French in the Canadian Journal of Political Science.  The winner will be announced at the President’s Dinner at the annual meeting of the CPSA in Victoria, B.C.

Indigenous Peoples and the State in Settler Societies: Towards a More Robust Definition of Indigenous Multilevel Governance

Authors: Christopher Alcantara and Jen Nelles

Published online April 2013 in the Publius: Journal of Federalism.

Abstract: Over the past fifty years, Indigenous peoples in settler countries have mobilized to demand policy and institutional changes from their respective states. Although some scholars have employed multilevel governance (MLG) to make sense of these developments, none has examined systematically whether MLG accurately describes these phenomena. We address this lacuna by creating a more robust definition of MLG and applying it to a sample of Indigenous–settler interactions in Canada. Our findings suggest that MLG is an applicable concept for some, but not for all of the Indigenous–state interactions that are typically assumed to be instances of MLG. This conceptual clarification should help scholars from a variety of countries to use MLG more effectively to analyze the relationships between Indigenous peoples and their respective states.

Devolution a nation-building project for Canada

Published Apr. 22, 2013, in NunatsiaqOnline

Last month, the federal government announced that it had signed an historic devolution deal with the Northwest Territories government.

Under this agreement, the federal government will transfer its jurisdiction and administrative responsibilities over territorial lands and onshore resources to the territorial government. Decisions over land use and mining will now be in the hands of territorial officials and the territorial government — as well as the five Aboriginal groups that signed the agreement — will now receive a significant share of the natural resource revenues generated in the region.

In short, this agreement, should it be ratified, will radically transform the political and economic landscape of the territory by providing northerners with the tools to pursue economic development more efficiently and effectively.

Yet this agreement isn’t simply about improving the economic and political life of northerners; lost in some of the initial analysis is the symbolic importance of this agreement for Canada.

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LISPOP Associate discusses moving beyond the Indian Act

Broadcasted Jan. 22, 2013, in TVO.

LISPOP Associate Christopher Alcantara examines the key concerns coming out of the Idle No More movement and how to go about amending or scrapping the Indian Act altogether in an effort to improve the lives of First Nations in Canada.

Watch Here

The Changing Newspaper Coverage Of Theresa Spence’s Hunger Strike

Canada-First Nations relationships are obviously the topic of the day. Besides the very serious substantive issues that are under discussion, I noticed one interesting trend in the public debate, that is, the struggle over whether Chief Spence’s diet constituted a genuine “hunger strike” or something else. In a lot of media coverage, journalists have been characterizing her protest as a “liquid only diet” or “liquid diet” or “forgoing solid foods”, rather than a hunger strike.

What’s at stake in this debate over how her protest is framed is fairly clear. According to media reports, Chief Spence has been subsisting on fish broth and herbal tea (one news story says she is taking vitamins as well), providing some of her opponents the opportunity to denigrate her commitment to her political and policy goals. I think the argument goes that a “genuine” hunger striker would take, at most, water. Questioning whether she is, in fact, engaged in a hunger strike, is not just a debate about semantics, but about the level of Spence’s sincerity and commitment to her policy goals.

I personally am inclined to see this as a genuine hunger strike, but that’s not the point here. I was more interested in whether any kind of patterns were detectable in how journalists framed her protests. Specifically, I wondered whether there was a change over time in the newspaper framing.

Below are the number of newspaper stories in the database Canadian Newsstand from December 13th, 2012 to January 14th, 2013 that responded to the search string “Theresa Spence”. This database includes both the Globe and Mail, the National Post, most of the metro urban dailies, a lot of local community newspapers, but, importantly, none of the Sun chain of newspapers.


Not surprisingly, coverage has been building gradually since Chief Spence began her protest, culminating in the last week or so with the publication of the audit of her band’s finances, more protests from the Idle No More network and the meeting between First Nations leaders and the Prime Minister.

Then, I combed through the articles looking for terms like “hunger” and “hunger strike” as well as terms like “liquid”, “liquids only” and “liquid diet”. I calculated the daily average frequencies of both sets of terms and plotted them against each other below.


So this plots the “average” number of occurrences of terms referring, more or less to a “hunger strike” versus terms referring to “liquid diets”, taking “liquid food” and forgoing “solid food” in Canadian newspaper stories that mention “Theresa Spence” over this time period. Clearly, references to Spence’s protest as a hunger strike have declined substantially, with frequencies after the publication of the audit much lower than prior to the audit.

The lines are smoothing lines; although the solid line suggests the decline started before the publication of the audit, I think that’s illusory. To me, there’s a clear break in the points before and after the publication of the audit. In terms of phrases that refer to a “liquid diet”, the smoothing line suggests a slow, monotonic increase in that sentiment.

It’s also important to remember: both of these trends occur in the context of a lot more coverage, period, post-audit (see the first figure). But while there was more newspaper stories that referenced “Theresa Spence” at least once after the audit, references to her going on a “hunger strike’ dropped off dramatically, while references to her only taking “liquid foods” continued a slight increase.

So, how to square all of this? I think two things are really important. First, it seems like the publication of the audit weakened Spence’s credibility, hence, the declining references to her on a “hunger strike” while references to her being on a “liquid diet” increased. But, perhaps more importantly, the sheer volume of newspaper coverage that appeared post-audit suggests that Spence was sidelined somewhat as events overtook her. Between January 7th and January 14th, Canadians witnessed protests by Idle No More, a meeting between First Nations leaders and the Prime Minister and some conflicts within the Assembly of First Nations. It seems like newspaper coverage during that time referenced Theresa Spence, began framing her protest equally as a “hunger strike” or as a “liquid diet”, and probably sidelined her, period.

Finally, it seems like this is an important lesson in how source credibility (as defined by journalists) is so crucial in structuring Canadian journalism.

**Methodological notes:
I searched Canadian Newsstand for all newspaper articles with full-text that referenced “Theresa Spence” at least once. Then, I used the tm package to analyze the texts within. I looked for terms that referenced hunger, hunger strike or hunger striking and, essentially, averaged them over the number of stories that appeared each day. Then I did the same with terms like “liquid”, “liquid foods”, and “liquid diet”.