New report calls for diplomacy between sovereigns in First Nations-provincial relations

A new report co-authored by a Brock University researcher is outlining how relations between First Nations and provinces in Canada are impacted by conceptions of sovereignty and diplomacy.

Liam Midzain-Gobin, Assistant Professor in Brock’s Department of Political Science, wrote “Reimagining Canada as Inter-National: Understanding First Nations-Provincial Relationships” with Caroline Dunton, a research associate at the University of Ottawa, and Robert Tay-Burroughs, former senior adviser to New Brunswick’s commissioner on systemic racism.

Their report was published by the Centre of Excellence on Canadian Federation at the Institute for Research on Public Policy last week.

In it, the researchers examine differences between provincial relations with Indigenous Peoples in British Columbia and New Brunswick. Midzain-Gobin says the report grew out of the team’s previous opinion piece in Policy Options, published shortly after the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) Act became law in Canada in 2021.

Noting that UNDRIP had first been enacted as law in British Columbia, the researchers set out to highlight the role that provinces should play in reconciliation.

“While the federal government has legal responsibility for ‘Indians and lands reserved for Indians,’ it’s actually the provinces that have the greatest impact, but we don’t really talk about that,” says Midzain-Gobin. “There are hundreds if not thousands of interactions on policy files and regular points of contact between First Nations related to lands, waters, the environment, child and family welfare, judicial policy — these are all areas under provincial jurisdiction that impact Indigenous lives.”

Midzain-Gobin says the often-heard political claims that implementing UNDRIP and recognizing sovereignty among First Nations would create economic instability ought to be revised given how much overall stability other diplomatic relationships with sovereign nations provide for Canada.

“Having provinces implement the Declaration will actually bring stability to relationships with Indigenous Peoples — that’s what a diplomatic lens can bring,” he says. “Reimagining the relationships as existing among nations actually brings more expertise to the table and means decisions are not only made together but that they are better decisions.”

He says an “inter-national” approach to governance would also be “less fraught” in terms of long-term instability caused by drawn-out court battles.

“When everybody has participated in and accepted an economic development or resource development decision, you’re a lot less likely to end up in court or have major decisions be overturned or have cases drag on for 15 to 20 years, which is the situation we’re in right now,” says Midzain-Gobin. “This model might mean negotiations take a bit longer, but then action happens faster without getting held up in the courts.”

He adds that provinces are already well versed in diplomacy because they regularly manage overlaps in jurisdiction with other provinces, different levels of government, trading partners and U.S. states that share borders.

“The provinces certainly have the tools and capacity to engage in diplomacy. Part of what we’re saying is that they need to rethink what their relationships with Indigenous Peoples are,” he says. “These are diplomatic relationships, not stakeholder relationships.”

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