Premier Heather Stefanson has a chance to set out on an agenda to advance the quality of life for all Indigenous people in the province.
Leaders from the Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak (MKO) – representing northern First Nations – and the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs both said they were happy that the new premier has asked for their input on a new direction. The optimism coming out of the premier’s Throne Speech is welcome news after the tumultuous relationship with the previous premier. The provincial relationship with its Indigenous peoples is in dire need of a reset.
As the province with the highest Indigenous population, Manitoba has a unique responsibility towards this population which has always lagged on health and life expectancy numbers, with the lag widening ever further over the last decades.
Although First Nations are a federal responsibility, the province can still do much to help these communities. We need to realize how handcuffed provinces and territories are when much of the action on the Indigenous file is dependent on Ottawa. If Ottawa drags its feet, the provinces often still get blamed. The province should work with Indigenous Services Canada to see more decentralization of services. It must also work with Ottawa to ensure that First Nations – especially in the remote regions – have access to timely health care.
The first thing the new premier will realize is that much of quality-of-life issue is connected to the availability of economic opportunity for these struggling communities. This means working with Ottawa and as many communities to accommodate joint economic ventures or opportunities for urban reserve development. The Kapyong Barracks (re-named Naawi-Oodena) development in Winnipeg – although a long time coming – is an excellent example of what is possible. Seven Treaty One First Nations will benefit from this development. These communities will also get more experience with business. Although this sort of land opportunity obviously does not always present itself, it shows the kinds of direction Manitoba should be pushing for with the federal government. They should push to open more land for joint development.
First Nations should eschew culture war tactics that unnecessarily politicize the discussion. Former Premier Pallister was right to take a firm stand against cancel culture, especially when it came to the toppling of monuments of Queen Victoria at the Legislature. The premier stated he intended to rebuild the monuments, unlike other places where politicians caved to activists. Indigenous reconciliation never has to come at the expense of honouring our history and political heritage.
Real Indigenous reconciliation will come from ensuring that Indigenous peoples have real economic opportunity instead of being trapped by lousy poor policy as the poorest people in their own communities on their own lands. This means the province must enable mining developments with attractive tax and regulatory policies. First Nations can be real players and active partners in that sector.
Of course, critical infrastructure like modern water treatment systems and broadband internet access are a feature of federal government action, so the province must push Ottawa on those files.
Working with Ottawa, Premier Stefanson needs to pursue a pro-investment and pro-growth agenda in Manitoba to assist Indigenous communities in becoming more prosperous – creating real jobs and opportunity. That’s the way to move away from having the lowest social indicators in Canada. That is a common-sense Indigenous reconciliation agenda worth pursuing.
Joseph Quesnel is a senior research associate with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy. www.fcpp.org