The Frontier Centre for Public Policy’s newest proposal “is a call for Indigenous leaders to engage with community and the government” on discussions for relocating “non-viable” First Nations communities closer to urban centres.
FCPP, an independent non-profit organization, is not suggesting that the federal government force First Nations to move, stressed Joe Quesnel, author of the report, but is broaching the topic as a “conversation starter for First Nations.”
The impetus for the report, entitled Respecting the Seventh Generation: A Voluntary Plan for Relocating Non-Viable Native Reserves, came from two fronts, said Quesnel.
In 2006, federal representative Alan Pope suggested that the Kashechewan First Nation, in northern Ontario, faced chronic issues, including flooding, that couldn’t be corrected with more funding. Pope said the reserve should consider moving closer to Timmins because “to remain in isolation and with no access to income or employment opportunities is to sentence this community to despair and poverty.” The move never did occur.
In western Canada, FCPP conducts a survey for the Aboriginal Governance Index. Alberta was included in that survey for the first time in 2009. The survey is also conducted in Saskatchewan and Manitoba. One of the questions on the survey asks respondents if they would advise their grandchildren to stay on the reserve or move. Overwhelmingly, said Quesnel, the response was to move.
“People are not attached to a piece of land that was not established by them. (Reserves) were established by the federal government,” said Quesnel.
“The land was never given to us. The land was always our land. We were always there,” said Chief Allan Adam, of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation.
Adam said while he would consider his First Nation as non-viable, he would not be in favour of moving the entire reserve closer to an urban centre or what he referred to as the mainstream effort to “make First Nations people civilized.”
But that’s not what the report is about, said Quesnel.
Quesnel defines non-viable reserves as those that don’t have the economic means to grow and develop, and are isolated. However, the report does not identify which First Nations fall within that category.
Adam is quick to agree that with no industry near ACFN and the environmental issues surrounding development in the area, ACFN is non-viable.
“But moving again just doesn’t sit well with me,” he said. He noted that the reserve has been moved twice before, the first time with the creation of Wood Buffalo National Park in 1922.
“We need help to fix up what the government has let industry allow to happen in the surrounding area,” said Adam.
Quesnel believes that relocation discussions are already happening at grassroots levels. He noted that families are already moving from reserves to seek employment and education in urban centres. That trend is happening in greater numbers in the west with Winnipeg and Edmonton the two urban centres with the largest Aboriginal populations in Canada.
Quesnel’s proposal outlines a number of steps that would be taken to look at relocating non-viable reserves.
He calls for a national policy, with the federal government developing a list of non-viable reserves and providing assistance to help with relocation. Sites could be found outside of an urban centre, on Crown land, or communities could be established within urban boundaries.
“As so many (First Nations) were denied the lands they were supposed to get under the treaties (due to bad population estimates at the time), they can use that now to secure lands closer to urban centres,” said Quesnel.
But George Stanley, Assembly of First Nations Regional Chief for Alberta, questions whether the Crown would be willing to provide viable land to First Nations. After all, he noted, it was the Crown that cast First Nations out on what Quesnel is calling “non-viable” land.
Quesnel also calls for government assistance for band members who opt out of relocating to a new site favoured by band council and instead want to move directly into an urban setting.
Moving reserve sites doesn’t address outstanding issues, though, said Adam. “Regardless of whether they were to move us anywhere, the fact remains that there are still a lot of unsettled issues that need to be resolved in that territory.”
Stanley noted that being close to an urban centre didn’t guarantee viability. “All First Nations are subject to the same federal Indian policy,” he said.
Stanley called for the Crown to increase lands around existing reserves to factor in First Nations population growth. “It would allow First Nations greater economic opportunities. We could use additional lands for farming, agriculture, resource mining, just to mention some of the potentials.”