Five Proposals for Three Indigenous Populations

Commentary, Aboriginal Futures, Gerry Bowler

In his paper “Successful Integration Experiences From Around the World”, Joseph Quesnel examines the response of three diverse countries to the economic and social challenges facing their Indigenous populations: Mexico with its Meso-American peoples, the Japanese with the Ainu, and the Israelis and their Samaritan minority. After noting the successes and failures of these approaches, he draws out policy implications that might serve Canada and its First Nations.

Mexico has a large number of Aboriginal peoples: 13% of the population identifies as such (chiefly in 8 south and south-central states), though DNA studies have shown that most Mexicans possess some native lineage. The Mexican Revolution produced a constitution based on the equality of all citizens, regardless of ancestry, but the rise of Indigenous activism, some of it violent, has forced Mexico to deal with Indigenous differences and find ways to accommodate them while respecting national unity and reinforcing a common Mexican identity. The “San Andres Peace Accords” of 1996 committed the government to recognize the rights of its Indigenous peoples, including the right to self-determination and the increase of political participation and representation of Indigenous peoples. In 2001 constitutional reform mandated the creation of a series of institutions and public policies to guarantee the inclusion of Indigenous peoples but clearly stated that, “Indigenous people’s right to self-determination shall be subjected to the Constitution in order to guarantee national unity.” Thus, recognition of Indigenous rights cannot compromise the integrity of the Mexican state. Attempts to improve the economic condition of Indigenous people has foundered because of the fact that these groups are generally located in rural areas, far from urban opportunities.

For centuries, the Ainu of northern Japan faced encroachment on their traditional territories by Japanese from the south. Beginning in the 19th century, the modern Japanese state tried to hasten the assimilation of the Ainu by legislation that furthered discrimination under the rubric of “protection” and it was not until the 1960s that political activism produced an awareness in the government of the need to recognize the need to address their claims. Japan has been willing to move to safeguard Ainu culture but has resisted any move toward self-determination. Though their traditional Hokkaido territory is rich in agriculture, forestry, and fishing, with tourism growing, the Ainu remain poorer and less educated than other Japanese.

At the eastern end of the Mediterranean, in what is now Israel and the West Bank, the Samaritans have lived for over 2,000 years as an off-shoot of main-line Judaism, constituting a distinct ethno-religious group. They have suffered persecution at the hands of Jews, Byzantines, and various Islamic states so that they number now less than 1,000. For centuries they maintained their identity by fiercely resisting intermarriage but they now realize that a diminished gene pool is a problem and steps have been taken to encourage Jewish women from Israel or Eastern Europe to marry Samaritan men. They have a unique status in Israel and seem to be well-integrated economically with their Israeli and Palestinian neighbours. Their continued survival, like that of the Ainu, shows the importance of resilience in the face of persecution.

Quesnel has considered the various challenges faced by these three indigenous populations and his paper makes the following proposals:


  1. As much as is consistent with the Canadian constitution, all governments and First Nations should work on decentralizing responsibility for First Nations to the provincial level. Adopting a regional autonomy perspective would represent a major paradigm shift among First Nations who in the past have rejected this policy idea. This would be based on the principle of subsidiarity, being the notion that political decisions should be taken at a local level if possible, rather than by a central authority.
  1. Rather than relying on the federal government or the provinces, Indigenous communities and governments should place the responsibility for cultural protection and revitalization at the community and individual level. Protecting endangered Indigenous languages starts at the band level where the language is taken seriously. 
  1. The federal government and Indigenous communities should prioritize entrepreneurship and commercialization of reserve lands over political representation issues. Although representation is important, economic self-determination must remain the focus as Indigenous communities will lose their culture and identities much quicker in dire poverty than in anything else. 
  1. Ottawa and Indigenous communities/organizations should work together in encouraging urbanization of Indigenous populations and building Indigenous institutions in the larger centres. 
  1. The federal government should work to ensure that Indigenous communities have access to natural resources that are located on their traditional territories. This is a main way that Indigenous communities can develop themselves economically and work towards self-sufficiency.


Gerry Bowler is a Canadian historian and a Senior Fellow at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.