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Canada: Analysis From Washington -- Problems Of Aboriginal Populations Remain Problems

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 9 January 1998 (RFE/RL) -- A formal apology by the Canadian government to that country's aboriginal groups and its pledge to support them in the future raise three key questions about how governments around the world should deal with such communities.

First, just how much responsibility should current governments bear for abuses committed by their predecessors against such groups?

Second, how should governments protect the cultural rights of small aboriginal groups without freezing their development or hermetically sealing them off from the benefits of modern society?

And third, how can governments balance the needs of such groups against the needs of the broader society for access to key natural resources and economic development?

But despite the best of intentions, the latest Canadian action provides little guidance to other countries that must deal with these questions on how to answer any of them. Instead, the Canadian apology highlights just how difficult finding answers is likely to be.

On Wednesday, Jane Stewart, minister of Indian affairs and northern development, issued an official "Statement of Reconciliation" to the country's 720,000 Indians, Inuits, and members of other aboriginal groups.

The declaration acknowledges that the Canadian government had been guilty of abusing the rights of such groups in the past and would seek to protect these communities in the future.

"As a country," the statement says, "we are burdened by past actions that resulted in weakening the identity of aboriginal peoples, suppressing their languages and cultures, and outlawing spiritual practices."

And in releasing the statement, Stewart announced that Ottawa was committed to setting up a $250 million "healing fund" to help those who had suffered from past abuses.

This declaration follows years of political and legal challenges by Canada's aboriginal groups and is clearly intended both to conform to Ottawa's oft-stated commitment to multiculturalism and to end the conflicts between the aboriginal groups and the broader population.

But instead of ending such challenges, it is only likely to increase their number for the same reason that such challenges are increasing in the other countries with sizable and active aboriginal populations.

Among the most important of these countries are Australia, Brazil, the Russian Federation, and the Untied States. As in Canada, their aboriginal populations are becoming an ever more important part of political life.

Sometimes this is the result of the encroachment of the broader society on the land and cultures of such peoples. Sometimes it is the demonstration effect of assertiveness by other, larger ethnic groups.

And sometimes it reflects the increasing willingness of governments and especially courts to use the legal system to defend group rights as well as individual ones.

But in no case has a formula been found that satisfied everyone involved. Few aboriginal groups are prepared to forgo all the benefits of modernity in order to defend their cultures or to exist in complete isolation from the broader population.

Few in the broader societies, even those sympathetic to aboriginal groups, are willing to forgo the benefits of economic development in order to satisfy all the demands of such groups.

And few democratic governments can afford the luxury of defending for the long the rights of aboriginal groups against the majority if such a defense carries a high price either in taxes of economic growth.

By facing up to this issue on an official level, Canada may help others to do the same. But neither there nor in other countries are the problems of aboriginal groups going to disappear -- unless such groups do.

And as the Canadians and many others increasingly recognize, the loss of such groups would be a loss for everyone.