Reconciliation with Indigenous peoples has emerged – at long last – as a national priority. The Government of Canada under Prime Minster Trudeau has made improving relations with Aboriginal Canadians a “whole of government” commitment. The underlying issues are numerous and substantial, ranging from widespread poverty, housing crises in many communities, cultural loss, to local economic development and major issues with local infrastructure. For federal, provincial, territorial and municipal governments there is a substantial list of urgent needs and conflicting priorities. For Indigenous governments, many with growing administrative responsibilities and increased financial resources, the challenges are even more pressing.
The national commitment to reconciliation places major responsibilities on the backs of the country’s civil servants. Indeed, substantial and sustained reconciliation is impossible without the deep engagement of the civil service with the rebuilding of relationships with Indigenous peoples. Given the fundamental importance of government social service programs, community infrastructure development, policing, environmental assessment, fire protection and safety, education and health services, and other areas of engagement, civil servants clearly play a significant role in working with Indigenous communities and enhancing quality of life outcomes. At this point, where many civil servants have limited engagement with Indigenous issues, the basic reality is that the profession needs to learn how to learn about Indigenous peoples, communities and public policy issues.
In many governments, particularly those (like the Government of Canada) that have adopted a “whole of government” approach to Indigenous affairs, many civil servants have some responsibility for Indigenous issues. These are important obligations. Successful civil servants contribute substantially to the resolution and management of vital issues that range from health care provision and road construction to resource development and constitutional affairs. At the same time, civil servants who are poorly prepared for work with communities, who do not understand cultural protocols or appreciate the nature and responsibilities of Indigenous governments, add to inter-governmental difficulties and slow development projects.
Civil servants, many finding their work intersecting with numerous Indigenous communities, face the challenge of developing cross-cultural skills, an understanding of the affected Indigenous peoples and the managerial abilities needed to engage effectively with diverse communities. They need to be alert to the fast changing political and legal developments in Indigenous affairs while also being aware of the legacy of generations of paternalism and colonialism that shapes Indigenous understanding of the role and values of the Canadian civil service. Working successfully with Indigenous organizations, in other words, can be difficult and professionally risky, particularly if a particular government unit involved does not have a history of successful collaboration and outreach.
Canadians look to their governments to provide role models for the effective application of national and sub-national policy priorities. This was the case with bilingualism, with the federal civil service setting the standard for the development of inclusive French-language services. Federal and provincial governments showed the way on Canadian multiculturalism, both by hiring employees from diverse backgrounds, building awareness of cultural differences into their service delivery models, and promoting multi-cultural engagement generally. The civil service should be, but is not in the main, using government innovation with information technology to pave the way for greater technology application across the country as a whole. The civil service can shape the national character, but it is not inevitable that they will do so.
The country will – and should – look to the Canadian civil service for leadership on reconciliation. The political arm of government can address most of the ceremonial and high profile elements of rebuilding relations with Indigenous peoples. The civil service is called to convert promises and commitments into core government actions. This will necessitate greater employment of Indigenous workers, new styles of collaboration and consultation with Indigenous communities, widespread integration of Indigenous issues into program and departmental activities, and outreach to Indigenous organizations. Staff training and professional development should involve much more engagement with Indigenous governments and communities and not just conversations about Indigenous issues. Civil servants need to visit Indigenous settlements or urban facilities so that they get a personal sense of the achievements and challenges facing the communities.
There is a test for the civil service and it is one, sadly, where progress has been slow. For more than a generation, Indigenous leaders have argued that they should be recognized as an additional level of government. Many Indigenous communities are functioning as governments. Indigenous administrations, typically reporting to a Chief and Council, manage government funds, hire and train staff members, develop policies, raise income (including taxes in some instances), supervise the construction and maintenance of infrastructure, and provide a variety of community-level services. Their work shares a fair bit in common with municipal or regional governments, but also with elements of provincial/territorial and even federal responsibilities. In other words, Indigenous administrations look like governments, act like governments, and have civil service employees, like all governments.
The Canadian civil service, through its professional associations, conferences, and organizations, has to reach out to their Indigenous colleagues, to share resources, to learn from each other, and to improve collective understanding of Canadian governance issues. Some organizations have reached out and broadened their understanding of government and the civil service to incorporate Indigenous communities, although the engagement has typically been through the discussion of Indigenous issues more than active participation with Indigenous civil servants and governments. This is, for the Canadian civil service, an early and obvious test of their openness to real reconciliation. Treating Indigenous governments and their employees as part of the Canadian civil service community – not coopting them culturally or institutionally – but as professional colleagues whose work intersects and whose presence in the country is a force for good and effective governance. Civil services cannot encourage reconciliation between Indigenous and other Canadians unless it takes the first step and reaches out to Indigenous governments in an effort to find and expand common ground.
Little real cross-cultural learning will take place if civil services deal with Indigenous peoples and communities as a “problem” or interact with Indigenous governments only at a conceptual and policy-level. Working at the policy level with Indigenous issues is categorically different than interacting with Indigenous colleagues, visiting their communities, and partnering on policy development. The Canadian civil service can lead reconciliation in Canada, but it will require a commitment to learning from Indigenous Canadians and an acceptance of Indigenous governments as being integral to the governance system in Canada.
Dr. Ken Coates is the Canada Research Chair in Regional Innovation at the Johnson-Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy, University of Saskatchewan and is a Munk Senior Fellow, Macdonald-Laurier Institute