Scott Serson

The 1996 Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (RCAP Report or Report) was by far the broadest and most comprehensive effort to define a plan of reconciliation between the Aboriginal peoples of this land and the rest of Canadian society. But did the RCAP Report ever get the kind of attention from the government of Canada it warranted? It can be argued that it was not given the warranted long-term, detailed attention and that a decision was taken around the time of its release that continues to seriously undermine the progress of First Nations of which RCAP and the initial government response to it had envisioned.

When thinking about reconciliation in the current context, there are many reasons to turn back to the RCAP Report. One reason is the following reference in the Prime Minister’s recent apology to former residents of Indian residential schools: “Two primary objectives of the residential schools system were to remove and isolate children from the influence of their homes, families, traditions and cultures, and to assimilate them into the dominant culture. These objectives were based on the assumption aboriginal cultures and spiritual beliefs were inferior and unequal.”1 (see Appendix 1). Retrieved 24 November 2008 from:] If the Government of Canada has finally admitted that this assumption was false, surely we need to ask whether there are other false assumptions motivating government policy on Aboriginal peoples. And if there are, will they not continue to confound efforts to achieve reconciliation at the societal level until they too are repudiated?

RCAP identified three other false assumptions in addition to what motivated and sustained the Indian residential schools:

  1. The first held Aboriginal people to be inherently inferior and incapable of governing themselves.
  2. The second was that treaties and other agreements were, by and large, not covenants of trust and obligation but devices of statecraft, less expensive and more acceptable than armed conflict …
  3. The third false assumption was that wardship was appropriate for Aboriginal people, so that actions deemed to be for their benefit could be taken without their consent or their involvement in design or implementation.2 (1996:248). Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, Volume 1: Looking Forward, Looking Back. Ottawa, ON: Minister of Supply and Services Canada.]

The RCAP Report goes on to point out “The fact that many of these notions are no longer formally acknowledged does not lessen their contemporary influence … they still significantly underpin the institutions that drive and constrain the federal Aboriginal policy process.”3 Indeed, it goes further to point out that even though “The four false assumptions may well be officially disavowed now … this does not end the capacity of political institutions to devise new ones … One such modern variant … is that Aboriginal peoples constitute an interest group, one among many in a pluralistic society.”4

Since the RCAP Report was released twelve years ago, it is fair to ask whether these assumptions continue to “drive and constrain the federal Aboriginal policy process.”5 First Nations leaders might argue that recent history indicates that they do. Efforts of First Nations to move toward self-government are given minimal support (unless they are combined with a land claim negotiation). There are no serious treaty implementation negotiations, although the current government has talked of starting some. Finally, the federal government continues to make significant unilateral policy moves. One recent example is Bill C-44: an Act to Amend the Canadian Human Rights Act to remove the exemption for band governments (Section 67). One reason for First Nations’ early opposition to the application of the Act was the absence of studies and analysis of what costs the Act’s application would impose on them.6 In the end, this legislation was introduced without any credible studies of the cost to First Nations, without consultation, and certainly without any effort to obtain First Nation consent.

The RCAP discussion of assumptions is fundamental, but it is just one small part of this comprehensive report. If only one assumption has been seriously addressed by government over a twelve-year period, it does raise questions about how seriously it treated the rest of the Report. One could argue that the initial government response to RCAP was a reasonable one, given the need to balance the challenge of analyzing a report of that length and substance with the political necessity of having a federal response shortly after the release of the Report. The federal response to RCAP was Gathering Strength – Canada’s Aboriginal Action Plan.7 It had four objectives:

  1. to renew the partnerships that RCAP argued characterized the relations between Aboriginal Peoples and the newcomers in earlier times;
  2. to strengthen Aboriginal governance, which built not only on RCAP but on the view of the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development (DIAND)’s senior management. When the federal government devolved the management of federal programs to Aboriginal people in the late 1980s, too little attention was paid to building and sustaining the governance capacity to successfully deal with those responsibilities;
  3. to develop a new fiscal relationship, which again sought to marry RCAP’s broad direction with DIAND senior management’s view that Aboriginal governments and organizations could not move forward in a sustainable fashion without a more secure and modern legislated financial regime (somewhat similar to the Equalization Program) on which to base their governments; and
  4. to support strong communities, people, and economies that, building on the elements above, sought to make a marked improvement in the quality of life enjoyed by Aboriginal peoples.

Of course, the Government of Canada also produced the Statement of Reconciliation: “As Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Canadians seek to move forward together in a process of renewal, it is essential that we deal with the legacies of the past affecting the Aboriginal peoples of Canada, including the First Nations, Inuit and Métis.”8 In addition, as a sign of commitment to deal with the legacies of the past, the government invested $350 million “to support the development of community-based healing as a means of dealing with the legacy of physical and sexual abuse in the Residential School system.”9

It is worth underscoring that the Minister of Indian Affairs of the day, Jane Stewart, fundamentally believed that partnership should characterize the day-to-day relations of her officials in their relations with Aboriginal peoples. In fact, she agreed that government officials should work with the Assembly of First Nations to determine how the Gathering Strength framework could best be implemented with First Nations. The result was An Agenda for Action with First Nations, an initial work plan that First Nations and the government would jointly pursue. As stated earlier, the government response tried to address the challenge of dealing with a voluminous and substantive report in a timely manner. Certainly, the senior management of DIAND at the time recognized that as Gathering Strength was being implemented, they would also have to continue assessing the detail of the RCAP Report. DIAND senior management gave such assurances to the national Aboriginal leaders and, indeed, to the commissioners of RCAP.

So, we come back to the basic question: if RCAP was a roadmap for reconciliation and if Gathering Strength took a few steps, however tentative, to follow that roadmap, why has the RCAP promise to Aboriginal people not been fulfilled? The business of government is complex, but there are two obvious contributing factors examined here.

The first is that the minister of Indian Affairs changed. Having delivered the commitments of Gathering Strength on behalf of the federal government, Jane Stewart was moved shortly after and replaced by Bob Nault. The new minister’s primary priority seemed to be a new First Nations Governance Act, which First Nations charged was not developed in partnership as the government seemed to have promised in Gathering Strength. Yes, the resources that were attached to Gathering Strength were invested, but the promise of reconciliation was lost. And, in fact, some First Nations leaders would argue that this is a pattern they have seen with the federal government over the past thirty years. One minister who works cooperatively and makes progress on First Nations issues is often replaced by a minister who prefers to work unilaterally. It seems fair to ask not only how reconciliation can be built in such circumstances, but also how First Nations can be expected to develop in the context of ever-changing directions in government policies and priorities.

The second contributing factor is one that seems to best exemplify the reality that the historic patterns of this relationship between the federal government and First Nations have not really changed. In the mid-nineties, as RCAP was preparing its report, the federal government was fighting to eliminate the deficit, in part, through a review of government expenditures referred to as program review. In the course of pursuing that objective, the minister and the senior management of DIAND were approached by central agencies to make a contribution. The idea was that there would be no absolute cuts to programs for First Nations, partly in recognition of the rapidly growing First Nation population. But, DIAND could contribute by reducing the year-to-year growth in those programs and then capping that growth at two per cent per year for the next couple of years.

Throughout the late 1980s, those programs had been experiencing double-digit growth based on a number of factors. Inflation and population growth were two basic factors, but there were two other unique aspects. The first was that the additional status Indian population created by the passage of Bill C-31 had to be accommodated. The second was that federal policy had always referred to certain First Nations’ programs as quasi-statutory; these are programs that provincial governments make available to all citizens. The federal government’s policy commitment had been to fund these programs at levels equivalent to the provinces so that First Nations people would not become second-class citizens. These programs include elementary and secondary education, social welfare, and child and family services. As the Bill C-31 population was accommodated and provinces began to cut back their programs to fight their own deficits, growth in First Nations programs had begun to decline throughout the early 1990s.

The specific program review proposal put to DIAND by central agencies was that the overall growth in First Nations’ program funding would be six per cent in 1995–96, three per cent in 1996–97, and two per cent for the two years thereafter (that is, until the end of that particular fiscal framework).10 Earlier efforts to move to this type of expenditure cap had been resisted by senior management at DIAND, and this proposal engendered much debate. At least one member of senior management believed that it would be naïve to expect the cap to be easily removed once in place. Others felt strongly that eliminating the deficit was an important objective and that, at the end of the fiscal framework and certainly once the deficit was eliminated, there would have to be a fair and open assessment of whether that cap on First Nations programs could be fairly sustained. It was in this belief that the DIAND minister and senior management had agreed to the cap, and it was those oral assurances given to First Nations leadership that tempered their protests against the decision.

Astoundingly, the overall growth in the DIAND envelope for basic services for First Nations remains capped at two per cent, eleven years after it was first capped at this same level. This raises the following questions:

  • What kind of an impact is this arbitrary cap having?
  • Is this the way other levels of government are being treated? Perhaps, deficit-fighting measures that applied to the provinces are still in place as well.
  • What explains the length of time this measure has been in place for First Nations?

One way of beginning to understand the impact of the cap is to note that over this same timeframe, inflation had been growing at a rate of two per cent per year, the same as the First Nations population growth. As the auditor general already pointed out in 2006: “Funding for First Nations programs has increased in recent years, but not at a rate equal to population growth. Indian and Northern Affairs Canada’s funding increased by only 1.6 percent, excluding inflation, in the five years from 1999 to 2004, while Canada’s Status Indian population, according to the Department, increased by 11.2 percent.”11 The impact of the two per cent cap is complicated by the fact that, as noted earlier, some of the programs for First Nations are deemed to be quasi-statutory and therefore should keep track of provincial expenditures. What this has forced the Department to do is reallocate from First Nations programs such as capital, housing, and operations and management to programs such as elementary and secondary education and child and family services. In 2006, an internal study by the Department calculated that by 2004–5, they had already been forced to transfer $500 million in the two per cent cap era.12 At this point, it should be noted that the government is not publishing any information about the impact of these reallocations on First Nations communities. For example, one might ask what kind of infrastructure deficit is being created in First Nations communities and whether this is creating a health and safety risk, but the answers to such questions are not publicly available. As an aside, it is worth noting that this lack of public data represents a poor example for a government that is often probing First Nations about accountability and transparency.

It is important to note here that successive governments have made additional investments in some of DIAND’s First Nations programs, but those investments do not compensate for this cap and, without reasonable base funding, the impact of additional investments is reduced. As DIAND has noted: “Most of the adjustments are for targeted programs, many of which are to remedy backlogs and historical socio-economic gaps. Although valuable, these adjustments do not significantly help First Nations deal with most services’ year-over-year volume and price pressures because the impact of these pressures has been greater than the funding growth provided by Parliament.”13

The treatment of First Nations stands in sharp contrast to the treatment of provinces in the post-federal deficit world. There are two primary federal programs to support the provinces in their delivery of basic programs and services to their citizens, the Canada Health and Social Transfers to all provinces and the Equalization that provides support to the so-called have-not provinces. By 2009–10, the Canada Health and Social Transfers will have increased by 33 per cent over the previous five years. Equalization received increases of 9.9 per cent in 2004–05 and 8.4 per cent in 2005–06 and a growth rate of 3.5 per cent for the subsequent 10 years.

For those that think of Canada as a caring, compassionate country, the question becomes: What justifies leaving this two per cent cap on First Nations programming when it clearly does not allow their funding to keep pace with inflation and population growth?

  • Is it because the quality of life gap between First Nations and non-Aboriginal Canadians has closed significantly? No, in fact, by all reports, the narrowing of this gap has slowed since funding was capped.
  • Is it because our political leaders are unaware of the situation? This is unlikely since, as noted above, DIAND mounted a major review of the situation in 2006 and a draft report entitled First Nations Basic Services Cost Drivers Project was available in November of that year.
  • Is it motivated by a government desire to encourage First Nations to agree to transform these programs? Again, this would seem strange since this was one of the avowed purposes of the Kelowna Accord, which the current federal government has rejected.
  • Is it an effort by government to force First Nations to rely more heavily on their own-source revenues to finance basic services? This too would be strange because, as noted previously, the Assembly of First Nations had already agreed in the context of the federal response to RCAP, and that was to undertake a joint process with the federal government to examine the circumstances under which the principles of the Equalization Program, which takes into account of own-source revenues, could be adapted to a block transfer to First Nations. In fact, a joint First Nation-Federal Task Force had started working on this until the federal government withdrew.
  • Is it motivated by an ongoing concern with accountability in First Nation communities? Once again, if this was the case, why would the federal government not take the direct approach and pursue the initiatives the current National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations has repeatedly said he is prepared to champion, including the very extensive process that was part of the Kelowna Accord (including a national committee of Chiefs) and that actually began work after the agreement on Kelowna was first reached.
  • Is it because Canadian citizens generally are unaware of the quality of life in many First Nations communities? This is a plausible explanation and a helpful one for anyone who wishes to continue to believe that Canadians are a caring people. Most First Nations are in rural or remote locations. For whatever reasons, DIAND does not make an effort to focus its annual public documents on comparisons of quality of life statistics between First Nations and non-Aboriginal Canadians and it does not make an effort to explore comparisons between per capita funding for provincial schools and what it provides to First Nations schools. There are encouraging signs that if Canadians knew more of the poverty in First Nations communities, they would demand action. The polling around the Kelowna Accord seems to illustrate that, as does the public reaction when a member of International Save the Children Alliance drew attention to third world poverty in Northern Ontario First Nations communities in 2007.14

Of course, the dangerous thing about exploring these possible rationales is that they lead to the unfortunate conclusion that the federal government is practicing a subtle form of discrimination in the funding of First Nations. This is likely to continue to be the conclusion of more First Nations leaders as they understand the situation more clearly.

The rationale for the federal government’s continued maintenance of a two per cent cap on the funding of First Nations core programs is not clear, but one is led to the belief that it has more to do with those false assumptions about Aboriginal people that RCAP discussed than any rational purpose. Returning to the Prime Minister’s apology in the House of Commons, it is clear that for First Nations, “forging a new relationship between aboriginal peoples and other Canadians, a relationship based on knowledge of our shared history, a respect for each other and a desire to move forward together with a renewed understanding that strong families, strong communities, and vibrant cultures and traditions [that] will contribute to a stronger Canada for all of us”15 requires that this issue be addressed in a straightforward and mutually acceptable manner.


Scott Serson was born in Ottawa, Ontario, but grew up in nearby Arnprior. He received his Bachelor of Arts in Sociology from Carleton University in 1970.

Scott began his career in the public service as a counsellor for Manpower Canada in 1973.?For his first ten years in the public service, he held various positions in social policy during which time he also graduated from the Career Assignment Program. From 1985 to 1987, he was Assistant Secretary to the Cabinet, Office of Aboriginal Constitutional Affairs in the Federal-Provincial Relations Office. In 1987, Scott moved to the Department of Finance initially as General Director, Social Policy and Federal-Provincial Relations, and later as General Director, Fiscal Policy and Economic Analysis.?Returning to the Federal-Provincial Relations Office as Deputy Secretary to the Cabinet, Intergovernmental and Aboriginal Affairs in 1989, he provided strategic advice on federal-provincial relations and Aboriginal constitutional issues and co-chaired the Indigenous Peoples working group during the Charlottetown Accord. Scott then became Associate Deputy Minister at Health Canada in 1993 and, in 1994, assumed the position of Associate Deputy Minister of Human Resources Development Canada. In 1995, he was appointed Deputy Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development where he was instrumental in the successful development of the Government’s response to the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples.?Scott was appointed President of the Public Service Commission of Canada in 1999 where he worked until his retirement in 2003 from the public service.?During this time, he was also one of the Champions for Values and Ethics in the Public Service. Since his retirement, Scott had worked as a policy advisor to the National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations. He now works as a private consultant.

Scott received the Outstanding Achievement Award in 1999 for his efforts in the field of social justice and his interest in public service leadership. He is a member of the Auditor General’s Advisory Committee on Aboriginal Issues and the Advisory Committee of the Carleton Centre on Values and Ethics. He is also Chair of the Board of the Institute on Governance and a member of the Audit Committee of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.

  1. Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s statement of apology [emphasis added
  2. Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples [RCAP
  3. RCAP (1996:249).
  4. RCAP (1996:252).
  5. RCAP (1996:249).
  6. Hurley, Mary C. (2007). Legislative Summary: Bill C-44: An Act to Amend the Canadian Human Rights Act. Ottawa, ON: Library of Parliament.
  7. Government of Canada (1997). Gathering Strength: Canada’s Aboriginal Action Plan. Ottawa, ON: Minister of Public Works and Government Services Canada.
  8. Government of Canada (1998). Statement of Reconciliation: Learning from the Past, January 7, 1998 (see Appendix 1). Retrieved 30 September 2008 from:
  9. Government of Canada (1998:1). Canada’s Aboriginal Action Plan Focused on Communities, Founded on Reconciliation and Renewal. News Release 1-9801, Ottawa, January 7, 1998.
  10. Based on author’s personal knowledge.
  11. Office of the Auditor General of Canada (2006:para. 5.4). Chapter 5: Management of Programs for First Nations. A Status Report of the Auditor General of Canada to the House of Commons—May 2006. Ottawa, ON: Minister of Public Works and Government Services Canada. Retrieved 30 September 2008 from:
  12. Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (2006). First Nations Basic Services, Cost Driver Project: Draft Final Report (internal unpublished document).
  13. Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (2006:6). First Nations Basic Services, Cost Driver Project: Draft Final Report (internal unpublished document).
  14. See: Silversides, Anne (2007). Poverty and human development: The North “like Darfur.” Canadian Medical Association Journal 177(9):1013–1014. Retrieved 30 March 2009 from:
  15. Prime Minister Harper offers full apology on behalf of Canadians for the Indian Residential Schools system. June 11, 2008. Ottawa, ON: Office of the Prime Minister. Retrieved 4 September 2008 from: