Vague timelines, benchmarks must be overcome if things are to change for First Nations

Last week’s much-heralded meeting between First Nations leaders from across Canada and senior parliamentarians (including the prime minister and several ranking members of cabinet) together with Governor General David Johnston (who is, incidentally, also an expert in Canadian constitutional law) pointedly highlighted several key areas of discussion into priority status.

Chief among those areas underscored for immediate action is one of five points the prime minister’s office has determined to require “immediate steps for action” and is headlined “Capitalizing on economic development.”

It states that, “within three months, Canada and First Nations will launch an economic task force as set out in the Joint Action Plan (a June 2011 statement of principles) that will report back with recommendations to further unlock the economic potential of First Nations. This work will be completed in a timely fashion. Work has already been underway to define the scope of this task force.”

Of the five points listed as “immediate steps for action” following last week’s summit, this is the only one to which is assigned any sort of time line, and that is only to start the process “within three months”.

While the government’s statement promises to “work together and release a progress report by no later than January 24, 2013,” no immediate time-target is assigned to the other four areas that have been agreed on as important to both First Nations communities and to Canada.

These points are legitimate ones (a renewed relationship between Canada and First Nations which will have financial self-sufficiency for First Nations as an end goal; the removal of barriers to First Nations governance, which seeks to “create conditions to enable sustainable and successful First Nations”; the advancement of claims resolution and treaty implementation that commits the parties to “ensure federal negotiation policies reflect the principles of recognition and affirmation mandated by Section 35 of the Constitution Act, 1982 and advance certainty, expeditious resolution and self-sufficiency;” and education reform which promises to act “as quickly as practicable” on recommendations forthcoming from the Joint Action Plan, currently in progress, which is considering the status of on-reserve education for children from Kindergarten to Grade 12 from which further recommendations will be made to ensure “quality education”.

These are all important areas, extremely important areas, and it is significant that they were reinforced as an outcome of last week’s historic meeting.

What is disturbing, however, is the vague timelines and benchmarks assigned, at least publicly, to the points listed in the outcome statement.

Even the point that focuses exclusively on economic development only promises to have a taskforce in place within three months. The work of the task force, however, “will be completed in a timely fashion”.

It would be unreasonable to expect promises to sort out a myriad of issues, that, further, vary dramatically from region to region, in any immediate timeframe.

But it is not unreasonable that Canada and First Nations leaders should be able to report to individual First Nations communities as well as to Canadians in general on progress achieved in all of those five key areas before this time next year.

There was a great deal of national publicity both prior to, during and in the days following last week’s get together among parliamentarians, the Governor General and the First Nations leadership.

A year is a long time for both ordinary Canadians, who may well have taken an interest in the relationship between Canada and its First Nations citizens, not to mention First Nations citizens themselves who obviously have a direct interest in any outcomes of these high-level discussions.

A year is enough time to lose interest; to forget what was important on January 24, 2012; to move on to other crises.

To maintain Canadians’ interest, and in particular to honour First Nations citizens’ concerns, Canada and the national leadership of the First Nations communities should be reporting progress every four months and in as much detail as possible on each one of the five topics highlighted for study and eventual action.

Reporting to the public this early and this frequently would not only maintain Canadians’ interest in these important topics but would also help to ensure that some progress does actually take place.