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January 21, 2013

Prime Minister Stephen's Harper declaration that he will take a leading role in managing the relationship between the federal government and Canada's aboriginal people is the best news that could have come from his Jan. 11 meeting with native leaders.

The situation of aboriginal people is perhaps the most serious, longstanding problem vexing the Canadian nation, and it requires the head of the government to take a hands-on role in the search for lasting solutions.

Nevertheless, it is an act of political courage for Harper to assume such a role. Nothing close to a consensus exists on the best path for the future of native peoples – not in the aboriginal community and not in the wider Canadian community. Putting himself into this position gives Harper many ways to fail and no obvious path to success. Still, this is the responsibility of political leadership – to seek genuine solutions to Canada's largest problems.

The traditional way of doing this is through negotiations. In this case, it is not clear that negotiations will lead to the best long-term solution for aboriginal people. Nor is it clear that a more literal interpretation of 19th-century treaties is the way forward. Further solidifying a situation in which many bands live on isolated tracts of rock and bush does not appear to be the route for aboriginal people to become equal and full members of Canadian society.

Some would even dispute that this is a desirable goal – that, in fact, native people want equality, but not integration. If there is no agreement on an ultimate goal, there is no way to measure progress.

Still, the situation of many aboriginal people – poverty-stricken, poorly educated, living in squalid conditions, with little hope of economic advancement, and with high rates of crime, substance abuse and suicide – is a national disgrace. This disgrace has only grown worse as the decades have passed.

Some bands – typically those more favourably located – have taken major steps toward economic development, a path that inevitably means greater integration into the wider Canadian community. However, for bands located far from major population centres, this is usually not a viable option.

The status quo is clearly unacceptable. However, to change the status quo enough to allow all aboriginal people to live in dignity will inevitably mean challenges to power structures and the way of life for both native communities and the nation itself. This will lead to a turmoil that most politicians would seek to avoid.

Yet the future of aboriginal Canadians is a responsibility for the whole country. It is incumbent on us all to make that future a better, more optimistic one. Outstanding leadership is needed to make that future a reality.