Two-thousand-and-seventeen marks the 150th anniversary of Confederation. It’s often called the “birth” of Canada, but Confederation didn’t bring real independence nor did it include all sovereign governments in British North America. Confederation was based on the fiction that First Nations title and jurisdiction didn’t exist — a founding myth that has been busted many times by the courts in the last 40 years.
This fiction was used to justify many wrongs. The Indian Act declared First Nations to be wards of the state. Our lands were to be held in trust. It was even made a crime for our people to raise money to promote their interests. This mistake is exactly why we continue to talk about “reconciliation” today.
While Confederation was flawed, it still shows us the way forward. It already defined “nation-to-nation” in 1867. “Nation-to-nation” means a government can exercise its jurisdictions without interference from other governments.
“Nation to nation” was built on two principles. The first was the division of powers. This ensures one order of government can’t legally encroach upon an authority assigned to the other.
The second was independent funding. Provinces knew being dependent on federal funding would mean having to accept federal priorities, federal conditions and ultimately, federal oversight. So they made sure the BNA Act gave them their own revenue authorities. It’s for this reason, unlike us, provinces don’t begin their budget process by negotiating priorities and appropriate funding with the federal government.
Unfortunately, the fiscal model being offered in self-government and treaty negotiations doesn’t do this. It leaves us dependent on transfers and revenue-sharing agreements, both of which are provided at the discretion of other governments. It leaves virtually every one of our activities subject to oversight, conditions and second-guessing from other governments. Ultimately, it places the federal government in a conflict of interest caused by its need to reduce its potential liabilities while also advancing our interests.
Nation-to-nation works and these principles also work. We know this because we partly implemented those principles through the First Nations Fiscal Management Act (FMA), which was passed more than a decade ago. The FMA created a set of revenue authorities for First Nations and gave us sole control over “local” services on our lands. In short, it allowed us to focus on generating our own revenues and to make decisions about investments and local services, according to our own priorities, without federal funding, condition setting or oversight.
The FMA has made many First Nations relatively prosperous. An independent evaluation of the FMA concluded that is has produced “new infrastructure, increased own-source revenues, substantial economic development opportunities, improved financial management and governance” for participating First Nations.
We need to build on the success of the FMA approach. We need more independent revenues and more responsibilities that aren’t subject to the conditions of other governments. In other words, we want to take responsibility. The First Nations Summit, which represents First Nations in the B.C. Treaty process, has supported this approach. We need these revenues and authorities to have the same protections bestowed upon the provinces.
Now is the time to commit ourselves to creating protected First Nation powers and revenue authorities within the FMA. This would help complete Confederation and bring about reconciliation. It would reject the notion that indigenous people can’t govern themselves. It would provide an option to implement many recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. It would provide a true nation-to-nation option.
As we enter the 150th year of Confederation, we are ready for the dawn of a new era for this country.
Harold Calla is a member of the Squamish Nation and the founding chairman of the First Nations Financial Management Board. C.T. (Manny) Jules is a member of the Tk’emlups te Secwepemc and the chief commissioner for the First Nations Tax Commission.