Sometimes pictures do tell the story. On Monday this week, Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin met in Ottawa with First Peoples and was presented with a ceremonial Eagle Feather. The next day, Mr Martin's Australian counterpart, John Howard, was photographed leaving a community centre in the small town of Colac when Aboriginal elder Moopor, wearing traditional possum skin and tribal makeup, pointed a bone about 2.5 centimetres long at the Prime Minister, placing a curse on him. Moorpor was protesting the decision last Thursday by Mr Howard to abolish the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC).
Mr Howard has been justifying his decision to abolish this body because he says that Aboriginal self-government is a failure, and that ATSIC has been too focussed on "symbolism" rather than practical improvements.
At the same time, Mr Martin was telling the Canada-Aboriginal Peoples Roundtable that Indigenous people would have a "full seat at the table" when his government makes decisions affecting them.
The Canadian and Australian experience of its Indigenous peoples is remarkably similar. Both groups were subjected to ruthless conquest and exploitation by European settlers and governments. The policy of assimilation and breaking up of families in pursuit of that aim has created a 'stolen generation' of Indigenous peoples. And when it comes to life expectancy, health, education and economic development, the Indigenous populations of both countries lag well behind the non-Indigenous averages.
Thirty-two years ago, when the reformist government of Gough Whitlam was elected a "new deal" for Indigenous people seemed likely. Mr Whitlam pursued the Canadian "land rights as a tool of empowerment" model for Indigenous people and his successors Malcolm Fraser, Bob Hawke and Paul Keating all shared the commitment to increasing the political, economic and social strength of Aboriginal Australia.
In Canada explicit constitutional recognition in Pierre Trudeau’s 1982 Constitution Act and the Nunavut agreements confirmed a trend emerging in both countries through the 1980s and 1990s that might be characterised as a "rights"-based solution to Indigenous problems.
But in 1996 Canada and Australia began to diverge with the election of John Howard. Mr Howard has refused point blank to offer a formal Apology to Aboriginal Australia for past wrongs and despite a scathing report from the Australian Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission, refused to offer a cent of compensation to those scarred for life by the misguided and morally reprehensible policy of assimilation.
Mr Howard, like Mr Martin, is facing a tough election later this year and the way in which each man is dealing with Aboriginal policy is revealing that divergence in attitude. For Mr Martin championing the Aboriginal cause is designed to restore the fortunes of his battered Liberal Party. By contrast, Mr Howard sees no votes in adopting this course – his conservative support base has always been uncomfortable with what it perceives to be a "privileged" taxpayer-funded deal for Aboriginal Australia in welfare, education and land rights.
Paul Martin’s emphasis on Aboriginal policy as one of his government’s five key current priorities has a more contemporary small-l liberal surface. Mr Martin has backed away from his predecessor Jean Chrétien’s abrasive First Nations Governance Initiative, which was widely condemned by Aboriginal leaders because it sought to increase the power of the federal government to intervene in Aboriginal governing bodies.
What the Canadian Constitution Act calls “the Aboriginal peoples of Canada,” Mr. Martin has stressed, will now have a “full seat at the table” when Ottawa makes Aboriginal policy. And according to Assembly of First Nations Chief Phil Fontaine, the April 19 new partnership summit did get down to some “real and serious discussion.”
Mr Howard, on the other hand, is intent on keeping Aboriginal people under his government’s control – he intends to replace ATSIC with an advisory committee, the members of which would be appointed by him.
But like Mr Howard’s government, the Martin administration wants to focus on the practical rather than the symbolic or constitutional aspects of Aboriginal policy.
Aboriginal self-government and land claims are still on the table. But they will be going hand in hand with Aboriginal education, health care, housing, economic opportunities, and political accountability.
The key point, Mr. Martin has said, is to “break the cycle of poverty, indignity, and injustice” in which too many Aboriginal Canadians still live. This means “real improvements” in “lives and living conditions.” And in the end “all of this must lead to economic self-sufficiency.”
Even so, the differences remain striking enough. For the time being Canadian Aboriginal leaders are listening to Paul Martin, just as he is apparently listening to them. Aboriginal leaders are attacking Mr Howard and protesting his policy direction. The feather and the bone say it all.