Aboriginal Rights


This week the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal found that the federal government has discriminated against Aboriginal children by under-funding child welfare services compared to funding that provinces provide their non-aboriginal citizens. The Finance Minister is meeting this week with indigenous leaders to see what can be done to rectify the situation.

Anyone who has spent even a brief time working on aboriginal issues will not find this surprising unless – like members of the Fraser Institute or the previous government (which stalked and harassed the woman who brought the complaint) – they are in complete denial. Ever since Paul Martin put a 2% cap on growth in transfers to First Nations as a (supposedly temporary) budget restraint measure back in 1997, things have been growing worse and worse for aboriginal programs and services.

While populations have grown at the fastest rate of any group in the country and other cost factors have often risen faster than the cap, already underfunded communities have fallen farther and farther behind. According to an Auditor General’s report, funding for education is more than $2000 per student less for on-reserve schools than are received by provincial counterparts. To put that in perspective, First Nation schools – who generally don’t have the advantages of the shared services of a larger school district – receive 15-20% less funding than a provincial school a few miles down the road. It makes it difficult for them to recruit and retain teachers let alone offer the full range of programs kids need in a modern world.

Some commentators have said that the problems of aboriginal people will not be solved simply by opening our collective wallet and throwing money at them. This may be true – but opening our wallet is probably an excellent and necessary first step.

Real solutions are more complex but aren’t hard to envision. Aboriginal people need – first and foremost – to be funded at similar levels as other Canadians for core services but they also need to have the ability to take control of their own destinies by having full access to economic development opportunities and by establishing their own systems of governance.

In Nova Scotia, for example, the Mi’kmaw took control of education nearly twenty years ago through a formal self-government agreement with the federal and provincial governments. Their students now perform and graduate at rates higher than their provincial counterparts, meeting provincial curriculum standards and, at the same time, giving their children the opportunity to learn their own language and culture as part of the local school programming.

Solving the problems caused by over a century of deliberate and systemic discrimination under the paternalistic control of the Indian Act and the department it spawned will take more than a few extra dollars in the budget – it will require an entirely different approach based on the aboriginal and treaty rights that are recognized and affirmed in our constitution.

And that barely scratches the surface of what needs to be said but that’s ten minutes.

Domestic Violence


Three women were shot near Ottawa on Tuesday – killed by a man who had recently been released from prison for assault and choking charges. Two of the women were ex-girlfriends while the relationship with the third is not yet clear. After his rampage he was heading to Ottawa, apparently to seek vengeance on lawyers or to attack the Court. The downtown was briefly locked down and we were warned to stay in our office. Fortunately he was captured without incident and is now facing three first degree murder charges.

He will undoubtedly spend the rest of his life in prison (he is already 57) though that is little consolation to the family and friends of the women he murdered.

Now there is a lot of soul searching going on as to what could have been done to prevent this tragedy. Did the courts or prison system fail? Did the community fail? Though as one women who campaigns against domestic violence put it: Once a man starts hunting woman who can stop a bullet?

Few things disgust me more than people who hit their partners – the people they claim to love. Statistics show that women are twice as likely to be victims as men. Moreover, it is men who escalate the violence and who are responsible for the vast majority of injuries and deaths in domestic situations. Regardless, anyone who resorts to violence in the family has a problem and should seek some sort of help. If they won’t then society should intervene.

The first step is to make sure than abused partners have someplace safe to go and the second is that abusers are given real options to change. Education of young people that violence against others, and especially against those you are in a relationship with, is wrong would help too. But equally important is to begin to treat domestic violence as serious – or more serious – than any other crime. The truth is the person most likely to kill you – whether in Canada or the United States – is not a stranger but a domestic partner.

Everyone makes a mistake in their lives and perhaps one conviction should be treated the same way it would be if it were an act of violence against an acquaintance or a stranger – but domestic abusers seldom stop at a single assault or a single conviction. One charge may be a mistake on their part – or even on the court’s part – but two or three or four? That is a clear pattern – especially when more than one partner is involved.

If someone is convicted of sexual assault, they are generally put on a sex offender’s registry. Their movements are tracked and often measures are taken to reduce the chance of them offending again. Maybe we need to do the same thing with those who are shown to be abusers. Two convictions or three and they go on a domestic abuse registry. Measures could be taken to warn potential partners of their history. They could be kept away from guns. They could be monitored to see if they take treatment.

Even as I say it, it seems draconian and excessive. And yet something needs to be done for those who refuse to reform themselves.

But that’s ten minutes.



The Truth and Reconciliation Commission on Indian Residential schools has finished its work and made its report. There can no longer be any excuse for Canadians not to know the truth of residential schools in Canada or to deny that those schools were part of a pattern designed to ‘take the Indian out of the child’ in the words of one of its early designers, part of a series of actions designed to eliminate Aboriginal cultures and governments and to wipe away Aboriginal people from the mainstream of Canadian culture. While our governments did not use guns in an effort to eradicate Aboriginals, they did use the weapons of shame and starvation, of punishment, kidnapping and degradation. We allowed children to be abused; we allowed them to die.

You can read all about it in the final report; you can hear the testimony of survivors as well and you can see what the TRC believes needs to happen next. The truth is out there.

Reconciliation is the most difficult part. If the truth took over 150 years to create and six years to uncover and document, how much longer will it take to reconcile? That is the challenge facing Canada. We can’t spend another 20 or 50 years fixing the problems of the past. We have to act now. We cannot continue the legacy of failure and poverty and despair. We can’t waste another generation of Aboriginal youth.

The good news is we don’t have to. As Wab Kinew put it; one of the best paths to reconciliation is through Aboriginal success. While the media has generally been full of stories of the struggles of First Nations and Inuit communities, there have also been tremendous success stories – some of which I’ve been privileged to witness.

IN Atlantic Canada, the Mi’kmaq people negotiated control over the education system in the late 1990s. Though, like all Aboriginal schools, they have struggled with limited resources, they have managed to build new schools and expand programs. Now their students have the same or better rates of academic success and graduation as their non-Aboriginal peers. And they have changed the curriculum of their schools to include their own history, culture and language. And guess what? Not only has this had a great impact on their own kids but also on the entire educational system as Nova Scotia has adopted some of curriculum for the broader school system. Similar successes have been achieved in BC and Saskatchewan as well as in individual schools across Canada. Unfortunately it is not the case in every schools where severe underfunding by the federal government and lack of local control result in low graduation rates and poor academic results. Work to be done.

In the economy, we know that many Aboriginal communities suffer in poverty – largely because the Indian Act has effectively legislated them out of the mainstream economy. Yet progress has been made in many areas – almost entirely because of aboriginal led initiatives which have pushed for opt-in legislation or negotiated agreements. Communities across the country have taken advantage of reformed land and administrative systems to prosper – generating jobs and businesses not only for their own people but for neighbouring non-Aboriginal communities as well. Millbrook in Nova Scotia and Westbank in BC are only two such examples. In the North, the Inuvialuit have used their land claim settlement to build one of Canada’s Fortune 500 companies. The Cree of James Bay have done equally well. Yet for most poverty is the norm. Work to be done.

Of course, Aboriginal success is not the only measure of reconciliation. And achieving this goal is not only an Aboriginal goal. Each of us have a role to play in this. And it starts with understanding. The reports are there to be read. I suggest you do exactly that. Then start thinking about what you personally need to do to achieve reconciliation. Work to be done.

And again that’s a little more than ten minutes.



When I was growing up in Nova Scotia I was completely unaware of Aboriginal people – even though there was a small reserve less than 20 kilometres from where I lived and went to school. The houses were well back from the main road along a narrow gravel track, hidden by trees. The kids, I now know, didn’t go to regular schools but instead were taken away to residential schools. The only sign of native people in the province that I saw as a child was a small shop called GooGoo’s Gifts just off the highway near Truro.

My fist real encounter with Aboriginal Canadians came when I went to work in Northern Canada in 1982. The community of Frobisher Bay was more than half Inuit though whites still held most of the top jobs and ran all the businesses. But change was in the air. The territorial government had a new determination to increase native employment and one of the first things I got to do was to begin training people to take over my job. It seemed like an appropriate thing to do. I was clearly just passing through but this was their home (and native) land.

Meanwhile at the national level, the patriation of the constitution was dealing with the recognition of Aboriginal rights. Chiefs and leaders had travelled to England to petition the Queen. The government of the NWT travelled en masse to Ottawa to lobby the Prime Minister. Demonstrations were held and in the end Section 35 was added to provide recognition and protection to Aboriginal and treaty rights.

My education was more rapid after that. I went to work for the then-Premier (now Senator) of the NWT who was an active proponent of Aboriginal rights. Fluent in Slavey and in touch with the elders of his community he championed languages, employment and changes in government to more closely recognize and reflect the native majority in the territory. I learned about language preservation and recovery – I think the women who mostly ran the program liked teasing the poor ignorant young man from the south – and about the way affirmative action could ensure that talented Aboriginals could get the jobs they deserved. I also got to go to several national constitutional conferences in Aboriginal rights held by the Mulroney government, where I learned just how complicated the file was – a lesson repeated when I briefly worked for the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples in the 1990s.

For all that, my real education in the truth of Aboriginal issues really started 15 years ago when I came to work for Senator Sibbeston in Ottawa. There I discovered the failings of the federal government to deal with education, economic development, housing and a raft of other issues. I learned of the shackles placed on First Nations striving to fix their own problems by the antiquated Indian Act – designed more than a hundred years ago to oppress natives and destroy their culture.

And I learned about residential schools, not in some abstract way but directly by listening to my boss’s stories of the horrors he suffered and by working with individual claimants who were struggling to go through the byzantine process of seeking compensation. Their stories are their own but I can only say that many of them made me weep for the injustices perpetrated by our country.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission reported yesterday. I’ll spend the next few days delving into it. Because the one thing I have learned is that our biggest challenge in fixing history is to acknowledge that it happened.

And that’s a little more than ten minutes.

Gender Parity


The quest for gender parity – in government, business and the arts – has long been a goal of the feminist movement. With 50% of the population, why shouldn’t women have 50% of the leadership positions in society? Why indeed? It seems like an obvious goal for those who are interested in a just and equal society but, as we know, there are a fair number of people who don’t believe in either justice or equality – though they often go to great lengths to couch their agenda in less ugly terms.

Gender parity also addresses another big social justice issue – income inequality. If women have more and better jobs, their incomes that generally trail those of men will improve leading to less inequality especially for single-parent families which are mostly women-headed. And less inequality is not only good for individuals it is good for society.

But the goal of 50/50 whether in 2020 or sooner (better than later) is not simply a matter of social justice, it makes perfect sense from a whole lot of perspectives. Numerous studies have shown that organizations that have achieved gender parity in leadership roles not only make different decisions but better ones. And they make them with less conflict and fewer ‘status’ wars. Corporations that increase the number of women in the board room have statistically significant better profit margins. That’s why some governments – with an eye on national GDPs – have mandated increases to women in the boardroom.

Quite apart from the internal values of increased opportunities for women in the corporate world, it is clear that leadership in government is also changing the focus of numerous policies. It is not that  ‘women’s’ issues have come to the forefront but there has been a realization that every activity of government – from supporting business to the military to health care – impacts and involves women.

There is still a long way to go. While the federal bureaucracy has largely achieved gender parity in most leadership roles, the failure of our system to support women in politics has meant that the one area where women still lag is in Parliament and legislatures. Many other countries – including Saudi Arabia of all places – have placed more women into elected offices (though to be fair they are given little power when they get there). Kim Campbell has proposed an interesting solution for Canada: two member constituencies where one seat is reserved for men and the other for women. While two member constituencies used to be the norm in PEI (for religious reasons initially), Campbell’s idea is a radical departure.

But why not? Those who oppose radical solutions are usually those who don’t see or want to recognize the problem in the first place.

Progress is never as quick as we might like but it can occur if we constantly keep our eye on the prize. While most of us have little control over corporate boardrooms or government bureaucracies, we can do our bit by voting or working for women candidates, patronizing women run businesses and going to art galleries or theatres showing the work of women.

You can almost certainly be sure of a good experience – because given the struggles that women have had to get into those positions, you can bet their work is exceptional. See, even inequality has an upside. Not.

But that’s ten minutes. Thanks to Caroline Russell-King for the suggestion.

Marriage Eqality


As I write these words, the votes in Ireland are being counted. There, for the first time, a national referendum is being held to approve or deny the right of gay marriage. If approved that right will be entrenched in the constitution. The early returns suggest a massive victory for the yes side, a tremendous thing in one of the traditionally most catholic countries in the world.

Canada was one of the leaders in providing the right to marriage to gay couples. It did not come about as a result of a referendum or even, initially, because of the actions of politicians — except indirectly. In 1982, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms was adopted and made part of the constitution. One of its most powerful clauses — overriding everything else — is Section 15 which provides equality to all citizens and in particular enshrines the equality of men and women.

When judging the legality of the Federal Marriage acts, courts asked a very simple question. If a man can marry a woman, doesn’t the equality provision mean that a woman can marry a woman and vice versa. The equality provision had already transformed the status provisions of the Indian Act that deprived women of status if they married a non-status man (but didn’t impact a male the same way). It had also led to major victories in the area of equal pay for work of equal value, so it was clear that the court’s answer would be yes. Marriage equality was an essential part of the equality of the sexes.

Ontario courts were the first to reach this conclusion. The effect was immediate and dramatic. Gay couples began to get hitched right across the province. The celebrations were long and loud and full of joy. I know, because I was living in the part of Ottawa called the gaybourhood.

It had an interesting impact on me personally. I had been married three times already; my partner had left a very long marriage to be with me. We were both skeptical about the value or the meaning of marriage. But watching the sheer joy of people celebrating what they had been long denied — the right to make a public declaration of their love and commitment — changed our minds. Gay marriage actually restored our faith in the institution, something I take great pleasure in telling my more conservative friends. A year or so later — well before Parliament debated and passed the Civil Marriage Act, Liz and I got married. It’s been over a decade for us and for gay marriage. Civilization has not ended — in fact it has expanded as more and more countries have recognized that gay marriage is a fundamental right.

While there have been set-backs in the Africa and Russia — places not always know for their embrace of human rights, a change is coming. Eventually, the rights of gays will no longer be headline news. Not even in the darkest places in the world.

Because that is how progress works — first with a trickle and then with a rush. And those who were once excluded — women, blacks and now gays — become just like everyone else. Able to seek their own joy — or make their own mistakes — just like you and me.

And that’s ten minutes.



The Queen of Hearts had a pretty simple solution to whatever was troubling her. “Off with her head!” would reverberate across Wonderland and the ax-men would stagger forward to do their duty. Fortunately the Queen was easily distracted and her terrible sentences were seldom if ever carried out. The determined beheaders of the Middle East are not so easily swayed.

They routinely drag out their prisoners to a public square and behead them while broadcasting the death on video. The numbers are on the rise with more executions planned every month.

I’m not talking about our terrorist enemy, ISIL. I’m talking about our terrorist friends, Saudi Arabia. They recently advertised for eight new executioners to keep up with the demand of the Royal Family and the state that springs, quite literally, from their loins. They don’t simply behead murderers or those convicted of treason. The list of victims is long and includes crimes — like apostasy — that have long been removed from criminal codes in western countries. The executioners also cut off the hands of thieves.

The Saudis are, of course, our closest allies in the Middle East — after Israel of course — as can be readily seen by the recent massive sale of arms by Canada to their government. Of course, our support pales beside that of the US government who have long been hand in hand — again quite literally — with the Saudi regime.

The reasons are quite clear. The Saudis have oil and, more importantly, represent one of the most stable countries in the region; they are the bulwark of pan-Arab movements, such that they exist and provide air bases for all sorts of American incursions into less friendly countries. This is the old ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’ idea and there is no doubt that the Saudis qualify as friends on that basis as they dislike both the secular government of Syria and the religious fanatics of ISIL. (Their complex relationship with Israel is another matter) However, the Saudis have their own radicals in their midst. Osama Bin Laden and many other Al Qaeda leaders were of Saudi origin, the disaffected younger sons of third or fourth wives — provided with money and a kind of education but no reason to embrace the west or even the ruling Royal family.

We all know where that goes. But the Saudis are compliant and don’t create problems for the Western alliance — or at least so we are told. Recently they have even begun to use their substantial military to fight against… people in Yemen who may or may not be radicals but who do oppose Saudi interference in their affairs. Meanwhile, they seem to be half-hearted in opposing more immediate threats, counting on America and its allies to provide air support to seriously out-gunned and out-trained Iraqi and Kurdish militias.

The conflicts in the Middle East are largely due to the aftermath of 19th century colonialism and western interventions in the aftermath of World War I. The solutions don’t lie in western hands — but can the Saudis really be relied on to be the architects of a lasting solution?

After all, they can’t cut everyone’s head off.

But that’s ten minutes.