While half a world away from each other, the difficulties faced by Canada and Australia on Aboriginal matters are not unique. In the case of Australia, a 1967 referendum allowed the federal government to make special laws that applied to Aboriginal Australians. As a result, Australian governments have put in place policies and programs with the aim of achieving positive social and economic outcomes for Aboriginal people. However, over four decades later, the gap between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians is still unacceptably wide.
That likely sounds familiar to Canadians. Canada faces similar issues in closing the gap between their indigenous and non-indigenous citizens. While Canada and Australia both enjoy a high ranking on the United Nations Development Program’s Human Development Index—8th and 4th respectively—their indigenous people are considerably worse off, comparatively sitting at 32nd and 103rd . This highlights the need for urgent action in both countries.
Both Australia and Canada’s history of relations with their Aboriginal people is characterized by a series of attempts by the government to reduce “disadvantages.” Typically, in remote areas, governments have failed to properly coordinate their efforts while in urban and regional areas, services provided have not been accessed by or effectively delivered to Indigenous people. Blurred responsibilities have allowed federal, state/province and territory governments to avoid accountability for their failures.
Recently in Australia, governments have taken strong action to intervene in Aboriginal communities to protect children from violence and abuse. The Northern Territory Intervention or, as it is more correctly known, Northern Territory National Emergency Response Act 2007, was a legislative response from the federal government to the Northern Territory Government’s Inquiry into the Protection of Aboriginal Children from Sexual Abuse report. The Racial Discrimination Act 1975 was explicitly suspended and the protection of anti-discrimination law in the Northern Territory was removed for the purposes of the intervention.
The Northern Territory Intervention is a classic example of a policy that diminished its effectiveness through failure to engage constructively with the people it was intended to help. A review of the interventionshowed that numerous people in communities described the significant government investment associated with the intervention as a wasted opportunity because of its failure to partner more closely with the Aboriginal community. The results of the intervention in Australia can serve as a warning to Canada.
A complex relationship exists between disadvantage and dysfunction in both Canada and Australia. The only way to break this cycle of disadvantage and dysfunction is to build capabilities through economic and social development based on engagement with the real economy. An artificial welfare environment continues to send the message “there’s something about you that means you have to have extra assistance”. The structure of income support often sets up perverse incentives that encourage people towards welfare. Welfare payments should instead be structured to support education and learning and help people to move towards employment, rather than acting as a welfare trap as it currently does.
Many studies suggest that the only sustainable way to build capabilities in indigenous
communities is to pursue economic and social development, through engagement in the real economy. If the purpose of having economically viable communities is to raise capabilities to pursue opportunities in life, a strong educational foundation is critical to raising the capabilities of Aboriginal people. This will lead to greater job opportunities, which in turn leads to a chance to be able to participate in the real economy and the other flow-on effects such as improved health and wellbeing are inevitable.
One Australia report suggests future action should be based around the following principles: genuine engagement with communities; active and well-supported indigenous led decision making; bottom-up approaches that tie together local knowledge within a national framework; local and region-specific programs; programs and policy approaches that are geared towards long-term achievements; regular and independent evaluation of government programs and policies; and cooperative approaches by provincial/state, federal and local governments which reduce the burden of duplication and red tape.
Canada and Australia can learn from each other’s mistakes, as well as successes.
The difficulties faced by Australia and Canada are not unique, and valuable evidence and learning can be gained from experiences shared.