Bill C-391, proposing a national strategy for the repatriation of aboriginal cultural property, is a well-intentioned but flawed piece of legislation. The Conservative Party support it’s but is seeking amendments to correct some of its flaws.
The aboriginal communities of Canada are truly our first peoples. As such, aboriginal culture is important to all Canadians for its role in informing us who we are, what our roots are, and how that has contributed to making Canada the extraordinary country we are today. Naturally, the culture, artifacts, and art that bear witness to its past have an especially powerful meaning for aboriginal people. An ideal outcome will be one that not just balances competing interests in the property of cultural artifacts, but rather one that builds on common interests to achieve mutually beneficial outcomes.
Because of the sweeping definition of aboriginal cultural property in the bill as “objects of historical, social, ceremonial, or cultural importance to the aboriginal peoples of Canada”, the bill runs the risk of putting in jeopardy Canada’s vibrant aboriginal art sector. This sector is a significant element to the economy of many remote aboriginal communities, and the revenues generated by the works produced support aboriginal families across Canada.
In any well-intentioned policy proposal, the greatest danger lies in unintended consequences. In the case of the bill, there is a risk of placing a cloud over the entire aboriginal art and design community. If prospective purchasers, be they museums, galleries, or private collectors, fear that the repatriation of their newly acquired property is a future possibility, they will think twice about making such acquisitions.
There is a deep well of good faith and existing collaboration between Canadian museums and our first nation communities. All across Canada, aboriginal communities have been engaged and made positive contributions as museums have stepped up their game in enhancing their presentation and interpretation of our aboriginal culture, art, and history. Let us work to ensure that this positive environment continues to grow, something that will benefit all Canadians in the future.