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Opinion: Brian Mulroney leaves behind a contentious legacy with Indigenous peoples – The Globe and Mail

March 15, 2024

Russ Diabo is a member of the Mohawk Nation at Kahnawake, and a First Nations policy analyst.

There will likely be few accolades offered by Indigenous people at the coming funeral for former prime minister Brian Mulroney. While his government’s tortuous dealings with Indigenous peoples ended with moves toward conciliation – albeit ones that remain unfulfilled – they began with disregard and duplicity. And they will forever be seared with the image of soldiers confronting an Indigenous community for the sake of a golf course.

Mr. Mulroney’s Progressive Conservatives won a majority government in 1984, just as Canada was grappling with the constitutional status and the meaning of self-government of Aboriginal peoples. In the Constitution created two years before, Section 35 “recognized and affirmed the existing aboriginal and treaty rights of aboriginal peoples,” while Section 37 mandated four constitutional conferences between first ministers and the leaders of the four national Aboriginal organizations to identify and define these rights. The first two conferences were held in 1983 and 1984; Mr. Mulroney would chair the ones in 1985 and 1987.

The talks were contentious. In 1983, a special House committee on Indian self-government recommended amending the Constitution to recognize First Nations self-government as a distinct order of government with defined jurisdiction. Yet, Crown representatives took an adversarial approach during the conferences, asserting that Section 35 rights were an “empty box” until filled by negotiated agreements. The four national Aboriginal organizations countered that the “box” had always been full, and that self-government was an inherent right that the Crown needed to recognize before negotiations could proceed.

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