Canada edges toward self-government for native peoples

Self-government means different things to different people. Canadian politicians and native leaders didn't like the confusion, so they decided to shelve plans for self-government for Canada's native peoples. Prime Minister Brian Mulroney tried and failed to get native groups and the premiers of Canada's 10 provinces to agree on a change to the country's Constitution.

``We are a cautious people and self-government is a term which is worrisome to some of us,'' said Prime Minister Mulroney at the opening day of the constitutional conference to discuss native rights. He quickly added, ``But self-government is not something I fear.''

It was obviously something that bothered the provinces of Saskatchewan, Alberta, and British Columbia. The other seven provinces agreed to Mulroney's proposals on native rights. The three western provinces -- which have the bulk of the native population in Canada -- did not. That disagreement did in Mulroney's plans for change.

The western provinces also have the bulk of Canada's oil and gas reserves. There was some concern that increased native rights would have meant native claims on those energy resources.

Now politicians, political aides, and lawyers in Ottawa and the provincial capitals are working on a new formula to give native people in Canada some measure of self-rule. A meeting is scheduled for the last week of May to try once more to define native rights and then put those rights into law.

There are three types of native groups in Canada: Indians, Metis, who are a mix of Indians and original white trappers and hunters, and Inuit, the people who used to be called Eskimos. There are 537,000 native people in Canada, which has a total population of 25 million.

Each group has a different idea of what native rights mean. For instance, the 700 members of the Sechelt Indian Band on the coast of British Columbia have a relatively modest vision of self-government. They want municipal status along with the ownership of land and resources. The Sechelt would pay federal and provincial taxes, although they would be brought in slowly over the next 50 years. Voting rights would be restricted to Sechelt band members.

The Inuit in the central and eastern Arctic want a new territory to be established. It would have power to control such things as resource development and native culture. All residents of the new territory -- native and nonnative -- would be entitled to vote, once a three-year residency requirement was met.

Other groups have more radical proposals. Many Indian groups in the western provinces define self-government as having a separate country, or at least separate from the laws of the province in which they live. But there is no chance of success for that form of self-government.

Provincial politicians were concerned that the constitutional amendment dealt only with generalities of self-government and that too much would be open to interpretation, especially in the courts.

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