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'Sorry' is the first step in a bold move forward

By Greg Barns - posted Tuesday, 14 December 2004

Three years ago in Toronto I sat at a breakfast with a remarkable young Canadian. He was a 26-year-old Aborigine who also happened to be the Minister for Mining for the 5-year-old province of Nunavut.

His view of the world was that the Aboriginal people have been afforded a remarkable opportunity through the creation in 1999 by the government of Jean Chretien of this vast but sparsely populated province. Nunavut is a bold experiment that links Aboriginal land ownership with economic and social development.

Tragically, such a concept is unthinkable in Australia, even in the context of the events of the past week that have seen key Australian Aboriginal leaders such as Pat Dodson, Noel Pearson and Marcia Langton seek to bridge the divide between their own political beliefs and those of the Howard government on Indigenous affairs.


But instead of talking curfews and alcohol bans and the extension of mutual obligation principles to Aboriginal Australia, there is an opportunity for all Australians to observe and reflect on the Canadian way of dealing with Indigenous dispossession.

Like their counterparts in Australia, Canadian Aboriginal people have been the victims of colonialism. Disease, human rights abuses, starvation and land theft are the legacies of the European imprint on Aboriginal society in both countries. There are similar numbers of Aboriginal people to Europeans in each nation 976,000 Aboriginal Canadians in a population of 30 million and 460,000 Aboriginal Australians in a population of 20 million. Canadian Aboriginal people lag behind their countrymen and women in unemployment, incomes, healthcare and educational standards.

But the fundamental distinction between the Canadian policy approach to Aboriginal suffering and our own, has been that the Canadians have not drawn an artificial line between what Mr Howard calls practical reconciliation and other equally important issues such as redressing historic grievances, land ownership and political equality.

This distinction has real relevance. Whereas the life expectancy of Aboriginal Australian males is today 56 and for females 63, in Canada those same figures are 68 and 76. Aboriginal Canadians earn more than their Australian counterparts. Where Australian Aborigines earn a median income of around $14,000, in Canada that figure is $19,500. And this is linked to the fact that the number of Aboriginal Canadians who leave school under the age of 15 is 22 per cent - half the number for Australian Aboriginal children.

In a comprehensive analysis published in the Journal of Australian-Canadian Studies last year, Paul Kauffman touches on some of the reasons for the relative success of the Canadian Aboriginal people in recent years.

Kauffman refers to a visit by Australian Aboriginal leaders in 1997 and highlights some of the successful educational and business projects that he says made a dramatic impact on the Indigenous visitors from Australia.


One of these projects is the Canadian Native Venture Capital Company. The CNVC was originally the brainchild of mineral and oil companies and the federal and provincial governments of Canada. It has successfully funded a range of small business opportunities over the past decade, including forestry companies, mining services and transport businesses. Kauffman notes that almost all funded businesses had achieved profitability within 12 to 18 months.

In British Columbia, Aboriginal people have regained control of forest lands and are now partnering with forestry companies to develop the timber industry on a sustainable basis. The Nisgaa treaty, developed between the BC provincial government and Aboriginal people, has made this economic and spiritual empowerment possible.

At a national level, Canadian governments, from Pierre Trudeau's in the early 1970s onwards, have been prepared to negotiate and recognise the Aboriginal people of Canada as equal partners in the land. Earlier this year, Prime Minister Paul Martin held the first Canada-Aboriginal Peoples Roundtable in Ottawa. In Martin's words, this is to ensure Aboriginal people will have a full seat at the table.

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First published in The Canberra Times on December 8, 2004.

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Greg Barns is National President of the Australian Lawyers Alliance.

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