Without fundamental changes to the legal structures and management of reserves, there is no just reason to maintain what have become a disgraceful Canadian version of American inner-city ghettos. Their appalling poverty, their epidemics of abuse against women and children, their rampant tendency toward corruption and nepotism - these alone should be reason enough to close most reserves. But more fundamentally, their very existence segregates roughly half the native population from the rest of the country.
Fortunately, simply shutting down reserves is not the only solution. Properly endowed with a resource base, equipped with laws that promote and protect individual rights and property laws, and governed by a new era of local democracy and accountability, native reserves - and aboriginal territories - could thrive again as homelands for people who all too often feel alienated on their own land.
Ironically, while the federal government is trying to move in this direction - albeit with the greatest of caution - it is the native chiefs who are blocking the way. There is a valuable lesson to be learned here from overseas development, where the best intentions for democracy and accountability have gone astray at times simply because they were imposed from the outside.
The campaign for a new age of governance must come from within, and in some places it is. Small groups on reserves and in other aboriginal communities are increasingly willing to take on their chiefs, just as citizen movements have done for decades in other parts of Canada. The government, along with ordinary Canadians, needs to support more of these groups in order to foster a furious competition of ideas and policies.
Just as Canadians are doing overseas, we must scale back our native bureaucracy radically and redirect assistance to non-political citizen groups and community-based organizations serving basic human needs. The world over, they are proving to be more effective, efficient and transparent than either local governments or big administrations.
This need not mean closing down the $5-billion-a-year Department of Indian and Northern Affairs, though I met few people outside government who did not favour that idea. But it would have to be transformed into a smaller, leaner agency that writes cheques, monitors the money and screams loudly when it sees fundamental rights abused.
Finally, there is a great opening for the private sector to do more, not just in terms of hiring, training and promoting aboriginal people, as good as that would be, but in forming joint ventures with aboriginal businesses.
Universities, struggling to boost native enrolment, have found how difficult the challenge can be. As the United States has learned in its own efforts to improve opportunities for blacks, mere quotas tend to do little to improve the long-term chances for a people. There must be a sustained effort - reaching into communities, identifying obstacles to recruitment, breaking down barriers to promotion - that few businesses have been willing to commit to, at least not without the threat of government intervention.
To do better, the country's biggest employers, in business and government, need to set clear goals and timetables in terms of aboriginal hiring and contracting, at least if they are determined to do more than pay lip service to the obvious need.