In his policy paper “Learning from the Nordic Sami Model”, Joseph Quesnel asks whether the current approach to solving the serious problems faced by Canadian Aboriginals is the right one. For the last half-century, courts and governments in this country have emphasized the need for Indigenous self-government and have made that concept the centre-piece of new legislation. But despite the focus on separate rights and territories, Indigenous people continue to lag behind most other groups of Canadians; they are poorer, less healthy, and have a shorter life expectancy. Quesnel suggests that it is time to look at other models of Indigenous/state relationships and points to the Sami peoples of Scandinavia as one Aboriginal population that has managed to avoid many of the dysfunctions that plague Canada’s Indigenous people.
Quesnel blames much of the current problems faced by Indigenous Canadians on the treaty and reserve system that he says has “emphasized paternalism, separateness and isolation”. These protected lands are uneconomic and inefficiently used as Indigenous leaders are locked into endless litigation and negotiations over these territories. Transferring more political authority to poverty-stricken communities afflicted with poverty, addiction, and social impairment is simply a recipe for failure.
The Sami approach, on the other hand, has de-emphasized land claims and self-determination. Equality has been achieved by economic integration, considerable investment by the Nordic welfare systems, and protection of culture and language, a combination that has produced a higher standard of living while preventing assimilation. Though the Canadian constitution and treaty system makes some aspects of the Scandinavian model difficult, the Sami experience should encourage us to look beyond policies that have so far failed.
Quesnel gives the reader a synopsis of the various political and cultural arrangements that the Sami have made with the states that they inhabit — Finland, Norway, and Sweden — and concludes that many of them cannot be applied to the Canadian experience which has evolved in different ways over the years. Our welfare state is not as generous as those in Nordic countries so he suggests that a “beefed up system” is required to bring life on reserves into closer parity with other parts of Canada. He does, however, suggest that the Sami insistence on cultural and economic rights, rather than approaches that produce separatism and parallelism, would be more productive.
In considering the notion of Indigenous parliaments, he urges against adopting anything that would formalize separate development. The Indigenous assemblies should be consultative only and serve to replace the plethora of lobby groups, activist organizations, and representative councils that all claim to speak for Indigenous people in Canada. By creating a single voice for Canadian First Nations, Quesnel hopes that a pan-Indigenous identity, such as exists amongst the Sami people, would emerge.
What might a look at the Nordic experience with its Indigenous population produce here in Canada? Quesnel concludes his paper by making four major policy recommendations:
1) Re-orient federal policy towards economic and social equality for First Nations, as opposed to political and territorial rights, through the integration of First Nations into provincial and territorial welfare state regimes.
2) Non-Indigenous governments should see their role chiefly as protectors of Indigenous language and culture, especially endangered ones, rather than focusing on transferring political powers to Indigenous communities that are not ready for such powers.
3) Establish an Indigenous parliament or assembly at the national or provincial levels as a strictly advisory and consultative body to ensure the protection of Indigenous cultures, languages, and traditional economic activities.
4) Upon the establishment of Indigenous bodies, eliminate national, provincial, and regional Indigenous lobby groups and representative organizations.
Quesnel recognizes that Canadian political structures make these recommendations a challenge to bring to fruition but the current condition of our Indigenous populations calls for bold moves.
Gerry Bowler is a Canadian historian and a Senior Fellow at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.