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‘The best is yet to come’ for Indigenous peoples: Karen Restoule on why reconciliation is a tangible goal and not a romantic notion

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Podcast & Video

This episode of Hub Dialogues features host Sean Speer in conversation with Karen Restoule, a regular Hub contributor and the CEO of Shared Value Solutions, an environmental consultancy focused on Indigenous communities. The two discuss her path into the world of public policy, the state of Canada’s criminal justice system, new models of Indigenous partnerships in resource development, and progress on the shared project of reconciliation.

You can listen to this episode of Hub Dialogues on Acast, Amazon, Apple, Google, Spotify, or YouTube. A transcript of the episode is available below.

Transcripts of our podcast episodes are not fully edited for grammar or spelling.

SEAN SPEER: Welcome to Hub Dialogues. I’m your host, Sean Speer, editor-at-large at The Hub. I’m honoured to be joined today by Karen Restoule, who’s one of the most interesting and thoughtful people that I know. Karen is currently the CEO of Shared Value Solutions, an environmental consultancy focused on Indigenous communities.

In a previous life, she served as Alternate Executive Chair at Tribunals Ontario, where she helped to lead the modernization of Ontario’s administrative justice system. Before that, she was Director of Justice at Chiefs Ontario, where she worked with First Nations leadership to advance policy solutions to justice issues. The name may be familiar to Hub listeners: Karen regularly contributes to The Hub. I’ve asked her to join us today to discuss her background, experiences, and perspective on a wide range of issues, including, of course, the ongoing project of reconciliation. 

Thanks for joining us, Karen. And thank you so much for your regular contributions to The Hub.

KAREN RESTOULE: Thanks, Sean, pleasure to be here.

SEAN SPEER: Let’s start a bit with your background. You previously went to and graduated from law school, but you’ve since spent a lot of your career focused on public policy issues. What drew you to the realm of public policy?

KAREN RESTOULE: Probably fair to say that, growing up, public policy wasn’t necessarily part of the conversation at the kitchen table in my household. But as I set out to the University of Toronto, for my undergrad, I was exposed to the larger framework in which we operate. And I grew, quickly, very tired of the conversation that I was exposed to down there, whether it was mainstream media, or at parties, being about who we are not, rather than who we are. 

And when I say this, I’m referring to my experience as a Canadian growing up in Northeastern Ontario, and as an Ojibwe woman from Dokis Bay. So, it was really, I would say, a very telling experience that I think a lot of us who’ve grown up north of the 401, north of the 407, possibly north of Barrie, that there are many perceptions held in and around southern Ontario and elsewhere about people who come from those northern regions. 

I have to say that the first feelings of inadequacy that I had in those circles weren’t necessarily during my undergrad. Although during my undergrad I understood where they were coming from, I think the first time that I felt that discomfort would have been through my family’s experiences with competitive sport, being on teams from Sudbury and North Bay. We were always traveling south for tournaments, where we were largely underestimated. It’s quite funny, opposing teams were quite frank about sharing that after what they believed to be a surprising loss. And so those conversations I reflect on quite fondly today, with friends and family from up north. 

But back to the undergrad days, it became very clear to me that the folks at Queen’s Park and in Ottawa were largely designing policies were people who had never really stepped out of those urban bubbles. In my experience, it seemed to be less of a fault of the political representatives themselves from the northern regions who, in my opinion, have always done a tremendous job at ensuring that unique challenges in the north were considered and tabled, regardless of political ideology. But in my experience, it appeared to be a bias that was mostly within that policy bubble, and the public service more broadly. That’s probably linked to the fact that a lot of these people do reside in either southern or eastern Ontario, and have never really ventured beyond those boundaries.

And the way I look at it, northern Ontario’s identity is proud, often blue-collar or rural in perspective, but it does have a huge importance politically and economically for Ontario. As I mentioned, you grow up learning about the centres of political influence, like Ottawa and Toronto. It’s not always been my experience that there’s an interest in them learning about us and that we largely go misunderstood, quite often, with the exception for those who have cottages in the area. But I think the lack of those exchanges of those simple conversations and exchange of viewpoints can certainly lead to a great deal of polarization, which doesn’t help us get ahead. 

On the flip side, I share that experience growing up Indigenous. I come from Dokis First Nation, which is a small, but very mighty, First Nation located around Lake Nipissing, and what we currently refer to as the French River. I did grow up, and I was raised in Sudbury, but I spent most weekends and summers in Dokis. My Dad grew up on the reserve and it was important to him that we knew exactly who we were and where we came from. And to me, I saw the richness around me growing up, family, kinship, we were out on the water, in the bush, on the ball fields, on the hockey rinks; spring and fall harvests, we were spearfishing and hunting. And summers were spent collecting berries, with aunties and grandmothers. 

And of course, there were issues growing up. I wasn’t blind to them. Addictions and mental health, some of the standard stuff that you see featured in media. But nobody talked about the Indian Act. Nobody talked about the overreach of the Church. Nobody talked about the day schools, the Indian residential schools. Nobody made the connection for us. In those moments, someone asked me recently, like, “How did you manage your own emotion where you got to experience that firsthand?” I just followed my Dad’s lead in my interactions and showed a tremendous amount of empathy and respect to everyone around me, regardless of where they were at in their journeys. As I mentioned earlier, it wasn’t until my undergrad that I begin to understand the policy framework that created those circumstances, namely the Indian Act, and started to understand the limits, the overreach of that policy into our communities, and how things ended up the way that they have been and the way that they still continue to be in some ways. 

So, all of that said, I grew very curious to understand that policy framework, I didn’t believe that I learned enough in my undergrad and set out to law school to better understand, not only the Indigenous policy framework, but the larger legal and constitutional framework that exists in this country. While I was there, I figured out that instead of arguing those laws, why not get into a position to influence policy? And this is the thinking that eventually led me to pursuing a role with the Chiefs of Ontario, where I was hired as Director of Justice to work alongside leadership and develop policy solutions for several justice issues. In that role, it became clear that the policy folks that I had assumed were carrying a great degree of bias, were just naturally unaware, they came by it very honestly but ended up being quite curious about my experiences as an Indigenous person in this country, about my experiences as a Canadian in northeastern Ontario. Through those conversations we were able to learn and grow and gain some clarity and understanding. And as I like to say, never underestimate the power of a simple conversation.

SEAN SPEER: That should be the slogan for Hub Dialogues. That was really thoughtful and kind of beautiful. As you know, I grew up in Thunder Bay, and some of what you said resonates. Obviously, some parts aren’t part of my experience, but some are. Before we move on to some of the public policy issues that you’ve tackled, I guess my question for you would be, do you think that the kind of benign neglect that you’ve described is changing? 

I was in high school in the 1990s and university in the early 2000s. The internet, of course, took off during this period. I felt increasingly more connected as someone in northern Ontario to Toronto and the rest of the country because of simple things like online message boards and MSN Messenger and some of these other mediums. 

So, do you think part of this is generational, that we’re seeing more interaction and connectivity between urban and rural, metropole and periphery, because of information technology and other means by which people are able to encounter others and better understand the experiences of others?

KAREN RESTOULE: Yeah, definitely. As a Northerner, I ventured out to the University of Toronto, not knowing anyone, I was one of those people who decided to kind of chart my own path. I did choose the University of Toronto because it’s an excellent institution. But a factor in my decision making was that my dad, who was working for the federal service at that time, was often traveling for work to the office, to the regional office at CMHC in Toronto. So I knew that at least once a month, that I would be able to share dinner with him and be reminded of all the good stuff back home. 

So, do I think things have shifted since then? Absolutely. Technology has given way to the strengthening of relationships and connection. I think of myself. I’ve relocated throughout the pandemic, from Toronto to the Nipissing Region. And I don’t feel like I’m missing much back in the city, and with the folks here and there and everywhere. I think we all feel that way. It’s a general sentiment that the pandemic has opened up the realities of virtual engagement. We’re quite comfortable operating within these systems in order to continue to prioritize the connection and advance those relationships.

As an addition to that—I know this is not a very popular sentiment—yes, Facebook is bad in a lot of ways, but in some ways, Facebook is very beneficial specifically in and around First Nation communities. I know back home in my community, even pre-pandemic, the community on Facebook has allowed folks to reach out to each other when they’re setting out to run errands in town, depending on one another to pick up packages, and even children sometimes after sporting events and practices. So, I’m increasingly a huge fan of technology and its role in maintaining community and relationships.

SEAN SPEER: Just as an aside, I was as someone in my teens in Thunder Bay increasingly interested in politics in general and conservative ideas, in particular, and there weren’t a lot of people around me who shared that interest. And so, I would spend all these times on these message boards, writing these long screeds about, free-market economics and all these sorts of things. And it wasn’t until I finally got to Ottawa and I met some of the people who years prior I only knew as a name on a message board, and discovered they all thought I was this like lunatic in northern Ontario, up at all hours writing these long posts about conservative ideas. So, gives you a sense of how cool I was in high school.

Let’s pick up where you ended in your first answer Karen, which is your work at Chiefs of Ontario, and then subsequently, at Tribunals Ontario, where you were really focused on issues around criminal justice. You were given pretty unparalleled exposure to the criminal justice system in Canada’s largest province. Maybe just reflect a bit on that experience, and in particular, what you think needs to change in Canada’s criminal justice system.

KAREN RESTOULE: There are really two areas that I’d like to go with. One is, you know, reflecting on criminal justice more broadly. And then the second is my experience at Tribunals Ontario in recent years, extended beyond the parole board and into leading and modernizing Tribunals Ontario as a whole. Really ensuring points of access to justice for the people that we served, which is something that we were very careful and deliberate about particularly in the shift to the use of technology during the pandemic. 

I want to take us back prior to my role at the parole board. There’s a point that not a lot of people know about me, but after my undergrad, I actually worked for four years, as I spent two years as a victim’s caseworker in a legal clinic in downtown Toronto and then later as a probation and parole officer in northeastern Ontario, in the Sudbury, North Bay, and Sturgeon Falls offices. I was actually supervising, at one point, people from my own community. So, my exposure to the criminal justice system started out right there on the frontlines, engaging with the people who were in and around that system either as the perpetrators, the offenders, and/or the victims themselves. 

As a victim’s caseworker, I found this work to be incredibly eye-opening, sad at some times but also encouraged by the resiliency of people who lived through these, sometimes, very horrific acts of crime, who experienced a great deal of harm. And lucky enough here in Canada and Ontario, we have avenues to support victims who experience those harms. I was honoured to be a caseworker there to support them as they navigated through the system to ensure that their voices were represented as part of that process. But more importantly, that they knew where to go in terms of rehabilitation and other supports to allow them to work through those harms, and re-establish some sense of normalcy. 

Later on, as a probation and parole officer, I supervised offenders. I worked on the other end of the spectrum within the system. This was within the provincial system, which means that it was largely people coming through the provincial courts, who were serving less than two years and Provincial institutions, which would lead us to believe that they were dealing with offenses that were predominantly lighter, I guess, or less serious than those you would see in the federal system. But one thing that became very evident to me is that the delays in the court system were leading to a great deal of pretrial time. So, when sentencing came about, we actually had folks who were in the provincial system. But by virtue of that pre-trial, pre-time that they spent behind bars, were getting discounts, so to speak, when it came time to that sentencing. 

So, at one point, my caseload had 25 percent of sex offences. I actually found this quite surprising. This was at a time we talked about technology; this was at a time where the internet was being used for the transmission of sexual content involving minors. But the public safety arm, the policing arm, wasn’t necessarily funded or up to speed in terms of cracking down on those crimes. So, there were some challenges on that front. 

The one that I found particularly challenging was, you know, having these individuals come through with pretty serious offenses and having a lack of rehabilitative programs to refer them to. So, our courts were choosing to do a mix of, let’s say, jail sentence and probation. They weren’t getting a whole ton of quality programming within the institutions. Then as a probation officer with community supervision, your choices, your options were limited in terms of where we could send them for further programming and rehabilitation. So definitely a frustration there on that end, as well. 

Then, of course, much later in 2017, I was appointed as Head of the Ontario Parole Board. I worked with a team of decision-makers; we were responsible for those who were serving less than two years. And once again, noticing the trend of serious crimes coming through. But just to skip along here, one of my biggest frustrations in all of my time in the criminal justice system was the degree to which—how do I describe this?—the liberal pendulum had swung, in my view, a little too far over to the offender. I think that stepping away from and looking back from all of the totality of my experience here, I think more can be done to consider the impacts and the involvement of the victims within the system. By that, I mean, not necessarily the victim themselves, because I think the legal framework, the policy framework, and the programs and services, at least in Ontario, are set up adequately to meet those needs. But there’s a level of harm that impacts society generally, when there’s an act of violence. I think at large, we don’t as a system recognize the magnitude of those impacts on society. 

So, just a quick example to help drive home that point. We think of, a few years ago, the Danforth shooter, right? You had direct victims who experienced the act of violence that this person perpetrated on them. But what about all the pedestrians and the residents of the Danforth who for weeks and months later, and maybe even until today, question whether it’s safe to step outside their doors? And so, I think this is a huge mess in the system. I wasn’t on a political staff in 2015 when the victims Bill of Rights was passed at the federal level, but it does capture that very element that I’m talking about here where acts of violence’s harm do not only impact victims. I’m not saying we take away from the victim themselves—absolutely, they’re at the centre. But there is an impact on society at large. And I don’t know that we’ve quite fully appreciated the extent of the impact in those particular situations. Another frustration that I’ve observed in recent years that has really been demonstrated is where policy itself might appear to be in good form, but in application, it might go sideways. 

So, both my examples here that I have are focused on the Parole Board of Canada to help understand what it is that I’m proposing here. So, in 2018 the Parole Board of Canada released an offender who had breached their long-term supervision order. He had been found loitering around a gymnastics club in Kingston. So that’s surprising, yes, but what’s even more shocking is how the offender himself was deemed to be high risk to re-offend. And, you know, the police and/or the parole board wasn’t willing to readmit him into the institution for further follow-up. Instead, they opted to release them into the community with more conditions. 

Another example, in 2019, this one’s quite tragic. The Parole Board of Canada released a man on day parole who had a pattern of violence against female partners, who had been convicted of murdering a partner in 2004. And oddly, in his release, part of his conditions was permission to see women to meet his sexual needs, despite the Parole Board knowing that there had been a history there with respect to his engagements with female partners. And then very sadly, and tragically, soon after that release, he was charged with murder after being found in a Quebec hotel room with a young sex worker.

So, these are two examples that we’ve heard about. Or maybe some listeners haven’t heard about them and they’re just hearing about them here today. But, you know, these are two of many examples that are out there, where key decision-makers are really missing the mark on the application of the law, in my view. So, I think we ought to consider the parameters, the criteria of the law. And in providing the appropriate level of guidance in these instances, like, perhaps maybe we should consider increasing the amount of time an offender of a more serious offence, like murder or sexual assault, should spend in jail before they can be considered for parole, giving judges the discretionary powers to extend or deny parole eligibility. 

So, these are common sense. I think it’s a very straightforward, common-sense policy solution to put out there, and funnily enough, I was looking online to see what other jurisdictions were doing. And it appears that there is actually a bill that was tabled in and around this very point, most recently by Eric Duncan, that would extend the possibility of parole from 25 years to 40 years. But the motive for that bill is one that focuses primarily on the victim. 

There’s also this other issue where victims are being pulled in every two years to provide statements to the parole board as part of the parole application process, and it re-victimizes them and it’s a terrifying experience. What I’m proposing here instead is that there be some discretion there on the decision-makers to consider the broader risks and impacts to society, at large, and that be taken in balance with the impacts to the victims themselves. So, a little bit, I think, of a specific issue to be talking about on this show. I’ve probably lost some listeners at this point. But I think, you know, this is a smaller point of the criminal justice system, but one that I think is actually very important. Particularly as I think we’re seeing a rise in the seriousness of violent crimes here in Ontario, but also more broadly across the country.

SEAN SPEER: There’s nothing, it seems to me, incompatible with what you’ve just outlined to on one hand pursue the expansion of relevant rehabilitative programs and supports, and possible sentencing reform for certain other offenses on the other hand. That is to say, there’s not a binary choice between tough on crime and soft on crime. A kind of more reasoned and moderate approach might involve some of the reforms that you’ve just outlined, which one could broadly describe as being more tough on crime and also supporting other measures that have been part of the criminal justice reform policy dialogue in recent years.

So, why don’t we shift the conversation to your current role at Shared Values Solutions? Why don’t you talk a bit about what Shared Value Solutions is, what its mission or mandate is, and why you decided to make this career change from the work that you were advancing in the criminal justice system to now working directly with Indigenous communities on economic and environmental issues?

KAREN RESTOULE: So, I just recently joined Shared Value Solutions a mere two months ago, and it’s been incredible to be back in a position to be working with Indigenous Nations and communities directly. Back in 2016, I’d made the tough decision to leave the Chiefs of Ontario where, as you mentioned, I was working with First Nations leadership on developing policy solutions to justice-related issues, and I went off to serve the Province of Ontario as a public appointee. At the time, the role with the province was very compelling to me, there were some shifts being made within some key provincial tribunals. And I was very happy to lend my skill set and serve the province in the way that I did. 

But after six years, and also engaging on Indigenous policy on the side of my desk, I decided that I would bring my love and desire to build and fix things and strategize to address challenges back to the communities that I hold dear to my heart. So that’s what we do; that’s what I do at Shared Value Solutions. We’re living in a time where things are changing very quickly, old approaches and processes that were in place, you know, five, ten years ago are no longer relevant today. That applies in business where we saw ten years ago, five years ago even, industry partners, not necessarily bringing Indigenous people to the table on key projects happening within their territories.

Back then, there were approaches that kept very separate business and humans and the environment that today, as we’re seeing the shift in the policy landscape, these are practices and approaches that are just no longer tolerated. I think industry and people in general, recognize now there is a huge risk to focusing on profit exclusively and to be operating at the cost of land and water and people, and that they are needing and wanting to do business differently. And so, in order for all people to adapt and thrive, I think new relationships need to be created. That’s where the focus ought to be. 

New partnerships forged, a new dynamic form that puts Indigenous peoples and knowledge and worldviews at the heart of the social, political, and business processes. So, what’s interesting at Shared Value Solutions, we do business a little bit differently. We’re a consulting shop. And we’ve been working alongside partner communities now for more than a decade by offering a range of environmental technical services, regulation and negotiation support, social research, knowledge gathering, community and land use planning. And we do this by working with communities to challenge and change the existing processes and structures that have far too long held not only Indigenous Nations but also industry back from achieving their shared goals of prosperity. 

So, how we do this is we work very closely with them, very similar to the role that I had at the Chiefs of Ontario, a lot of listening and understanding where leadership where communities are interested in heading, what their vision is, what their goals are, and then examining all of the tools and approaches that are out there that we can leverage to help position the Nations in the best possible way to achieve their goals. Then, obviously, we also assist in navigating laws and regulations that might hold them back from achieving their goals and ultimately success. But nonetheless, the point is here is that we’re really there, hand in hand, working towards their vision, and their goals.

SEAN SPEER: It’s such a fascinating model, Karen. There’s this tendency to assume a lack of progress on different projects is because First Nations leadership or their communities are obstinate, or they’re inherently anti-development. And part of me thinks that one of the obstacles has been that we are asking these communities to make decisions that could be transformative for their communities with very little resources to support them in negotiating with large corporations who come with teams of lawyers, consultants and so on. 

I don’t know about you, but when I’m confronted with a tough decision, I have an instinct to kind of turn inward and retreat and withdraw. So oftentimes, I’ve wondered if we’ve misinterpreted obstinance for what is really at its core: just a lack of support to navigate decisions that could change the future of these communities. 

Do you want to talk a bit about your experience thus far and how you’re able to help these communities and their leadership reach the best arrangements to really create the economic opportunity that won’t just be around in the short term, but that can really be a catalyst for long term change?

KAREN RESTOULE: Yeah, you raise an interesting point, you know, there’s a lot of misinterpretation of what it is that Indigenous communities and leaders want. In my conversations, not just in this role but more broadly in my role at Chiefs of Ontario and just as an Indigenous person navigating the circles, communities are pretty clear on what it is that they’re setting out for. All of the community leaders and citizens that I’ve engaged with, they want to move their communities to prosperity. 

You know, to date I’ve not met one single leader who has said to me, “Karen, we want to continue to manage poverty.” No one has said that. Everyone wants to better position the next generations economically. But what differs is how they will get there. So, we work—at Shared Value and in my previous role—we work with them towards achieving that economic independence in a way that aligns with their values and their vision. Another point that came to mind is, all communities that I’ve engaged with are also clear in their commitment of ensuring that the land and water, the environment, is protected for future generations. Where there are conversations about engaging with industry to develop resources in their territories, communities are very clear that the approach needs to prioritize environmental sustainability and that these resources are to leverage future growth of their Nations over time, but more importantly, on their own terms. So, that’s what I’m seeing out there. 

In terms of where things are at more broadly, I am very encouraged to see the shift in alignment on the vision, to see the driving priorities between industry, governments, Indigenous communities in recent years, particularly as they relate to how business is shifting in response to a new focus on sustainability, ESG metrics, global commitment to net zero in particular. We’re seeing sector and industry leaders recognizing that Canada won’t be able to contribute to reaching that goal if we don’t come together to tackle the challenge together. And on that, you know, we’re looking at the possibility of billions and billions, maybe trillions, of dollars in clean energy projects and related infrastructure, the extraction of rare earths and minerals to support a spike in demand for EVs and batteries and other new technologies—which, all of this in large part is linked to or will be established and or sourced from Indigenous territories. 

So, from where I’m sitting, I think everyone has a role to play and everyone is stepping up to the challenge. I’m loving the work that I’m seeing coming out of the First Nations Major Project Coalition. I think it’s a very exciting initiative. Indigenous chiefs and leading policy minds are redefining the industry-Indigenous partnership, and what’s required to support a timely and expeditious transition to a more sustainable future. And then on the other end, I’m particularly encouraged to see the launch of certain initiatives like Conservatives for Clean Growth, and seeing key members of the party like Lisa Raitt, Jim Dinning, Ken Boessenkool, and others so clearly define the opportunities that lie ahead for everyone. As the world heads towards net zero, you know, it’s not a secret, there’s been a ton of hesitation within the Conservative Party to get on board. 

But the way I look at it very, very fundamentally, is that it is human nature to resist the unknown. And change is hard for most people. But what helps move people through the unknown, through the uncomfortable, is strong leadership. That’s just what we’re seeing, I think on all fronts, whether it’s within the Conservative collective, whether it’s among Indigenous Nations. This is an exciting goal for Canada, one that I think is aligned with the concept of reconciliation, but not so obvious in terms of feel-goods and posters and fancy headlines, but this is squarely where we are in terms of an alignment of vision and values and principles that help drive that work. I think we’re living in a really exciting time.

SEAN SPEER: Well, let’s wrap up with a final question about the issue of reconciliation, something you mentioned earlier. At the current moment, in light of some of the things you’ve just raised, Karen, is there reason to be optimistic about the project of reconciliation?

KAREN RESTOULE: That is such a simple but also a very loaded question. For the reasons that I’ve just outlined, I’m very optimistic about where we’re headed. I think reconciliation on its own remains a concept of mystery to many Canadians. Coming out of what we witnessed and experienced last summer with respect to the recovery of the human remains of the kids who never made it back home from Residential School, I think that awakened Canadians to a certain extent. But ultimately, I think Canadians don’t really fully understand how it is that they can engage to move the dial forward there, and having initiatives, having a shared goal, like achieving net-zero by 2050, helps to really centre and make real what the challenge, what the vision, what the mission is, and people can tangibly see themselves, and position themselves to be able to contribute to that goal.

On a personal level, I don’t think reconciliation is that hard to imagine. But I think if you haven’t been exposed to the realities faced by Indigenous peoples in this country, it is a bit more complicated to wrap your mind around the why and the where are we headed, and I can appreciate that. 

But on the economics front, what I like most is private sector industry has been not just in and around net-zero, but has been driving the bus, so to speak, on this front. And they realized after much turmoil and tension and protests and blockades that, if they wanted to get the project off the ground, they ought to shift their approach from one of steamrolling to one where everyone’s interests are taken into consideration. And so, I don’t have the quantitative data, it’s actually not out there on the progress that we’ve made in that industry-Indigenous relationship, but it is qualitatively quite substantive. I think we’re seeing that across the country now. 

Government is still struggling, except for Alberta, oddly and surprisingly. The Kenney government launched the Alberta Indigenous Opportunities Corporation which works with Indigenous communities across Alberta to invest in natural resources, agriculture, telecom, and transportation projects by enabling capital, making financing more affordable; and ultimately, the goal is to create economic prosperity and social improvements, not just for communities, but for everyone. I think it’s policy initiatives like that that help to balance out the current and historic barriers of the Indian Act and level the playing field for First Nations. I was quite excited to see within Erin O’Toole’s platform a commitment to expand that program nationally, and I really do hope to see other candidates and parties heading in that direction as well.

I just want to spend a few minutes on what I’m seeing in the bigger picture, though, in terms of governance and policy. While it’s nice to see this kind of leadership on the economic front, there still remains a huge barrier to First Nations on the governance side, and it’s through the Indian Act. I want to break it down for you. So, the Indian Act was introduced in 1876. Canada, in the state that we know it, has been around for 155 years. So, for 146 of those 155 years, Canada has been governing with the same strategy. And sure, along the way, it’s amended the Indian Act, and it’s taken away some of the worst parts, and then Canada’s patted itself on the back. 

But here we are, still talking about it, and acknowledging that it’s doing more harm, more damage, than good. And last year—it’s not like we’re short on cash—last year’s budget, the Indigenous file was over eight billion dollars. The amount has been in and around that since Trudeau and friends took over in 2015. For 139 years before that, there have been significant transfers in order for the Crown to uphold its fiduciary obligations. 

So, the big question is, what has changed? For 155 years Canada has shot its shot, as the kids say today, but where are the results? Canada, in my view, has not succeeded in achieving its policy outcome, which, as it set out to do in 1876 was, was to assimilate every Indian, every Indigenous person into mainstream society. In its current form, it says that the Indian Act is intended to manage registered Indians, governments, and lands. We can probably agree that it’s not been successful in achieving those goals either. So again, I ask, where are the results? It’s spent more than billions and billions and billions of dollars. And the only thing we can fairly say that it has achieved is an overinflated federal bureaucracy, in my view.

So, the federal Crown can continue to push a governance policy, a strategy that has not achieved much impact. It hasn’t reduced poverty, and it hasn’t promoted economic growth. So, what’s the plan? Right? I know The Hub is big on forward-looking solutions. The plan, in my view, needs to be a federal policy that gives way to the modernization of treaties. So currently, we have twenty-five modern self-governments, or modern treaty agreements, that include some forty or so Indigenous Nations. There are more than 630 First Nations across the country. That means that approximately 590 Nations remain under the Indian Act. That’s half of the territorial span of the country. Most of these 590 nations are signatories to, quote-unquote, “historic treaties.” And these are treaties that when signed, established, and set out the Crown-Indigenous relationship with binding legal rights, and they’re still live to this day, but they get administrated through the Indian Act

So, I think we have to consider the possibilities of renegotiating or opening up those, quote-unquote, “historic treaties,” and making them relevant and modern, and applicable today. I know some people are probably thinking, “Well, Karen, this is a lot of work and that seems impossible.” It does seem that way to most people. But to a small group of people, it is possible. Like my dad used to say, and probably every dad has said, “If there is a will, there is a way.” I think Canada needs to decide if it wants to sit in the status quo for the rest of time or if it wants to get serious and exercise its true potential. 

So when you asked Sean, if I’m optimistic about reconciliation, I say Indigenous Nations are ready to drive off the Indian Act superhighway. I believe that there are real leaders that have yet to secure a seat at the big political table in Ottawa who have the moral fortitude to sit with First Nations leadership and pave a new way forward. I think there are real leaders who understand that reconciliation is a tangible goal and not a romantic notion. I think that there are real leaders who understand that policies that promote empowerment, self and local government, and equality of opportunity will give way to greatness. And with that, my answer is I think the best is yet to come.

SEAN SPEER: Well, Karen, I promised listeners that you were one of the most interesting and thoughtful people that I know, and I think you just demonstrated it there. There are so many ideas to pick up, but I’m sensitive of time. So, I’ll say we’ll have to have you back on the show to talk about how to operationalize the vision you’ve just articulated. And of course, listeners can read your future articles and essays at The Hub where no doubt you’ll continue to advance your thinking on these issues. But let me just say on behalf of our listeners, thank you for sharing your background and experience and perspective, and for joining me today at Hub Dialogues.

KAREN RESTOULE: Thanks so much, Sean.

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