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Stephen Harper prepares to fail his biggest test as PM

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Prime Minister Stephen Harper may be facing the defining issue of his regime.  As he prepares for Friday's meeting with First Nations leaders, he faces the strongest public opposition to his core agenda that he has seen in his seven years in office, one that is widespread, motivated, and legally empowered.

I am not speaking of a hidden agenda, but one that is plain to any observer.

Mr. Harper's long ties to the oil and gas industry are well known. That industry employed his father, it employed him, and he served notice early in his first term that "Canada's emergence as a global energy powerhouse -- the emerging 'energy superpower' our government intends to build," is his overriding economic vision.

But he faces a significant hurdle in realizing that agenda in the way he would like: Indigenous rights.

Mr. Harper's animosity toward Indigenous rights has been less forthright, but clear. Tom Flanagan – Harper's former Chief of Staff, campaign manager, and mentor at the University of Calgary -- is open in his view that the assimilation of First Nations is the Conservatives' desired goal. Mr. Harper's true colours showed briefly when he claimed that, "We also have no history of colonialism," but the real evidence has been his government's ongoing attacks on the legitimacy of Indigenous rights, the legal status of First Nations governments, the honesty and competency of First Nations leadership, and the viability of reserves. 

By his deeds he shall be known.

On the global stage, he stood almost alone in opposition to 144 other countries in voting against the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Domestically, he has tabled bills that diminish First Nations jurisdiction to that of administrative agencies of the federal government.  His party has consistently claimed that First Nation governments are corrupt or mismanaged.  He killed the Kelowna Accord. His steadfast refusal to fund First Nation child welfare agencies at the same rate as provincial agencies -- a gap of 22 per cent according to the Auditor General -- is the subject of a human rights complaint for discrimination. The cap of two per cent funding growth per annum for education, housing, infrastructure (like drinking water) and other essential services means that, while keeping up with inflation, First Nations are further impoverished each year at the same rate as they have children (approximately 3.5 per year).  To make his purpose obvious, he has legislation aimed at selling communally held reserve lands to private interests and the now infamous Bill C-45 created new arrangements for the leasing of reserve lands to non-band members.

Each of these steps is aimed at diminishing the power and capacity of First Nations to function.  Each is calculated to drive people off reserve. Like Harper's legislative attacks on environmental protection, each serves the goal of eventually allowing oil, gas, mining, and other resource extraction industries to go about their business unhindered.

But people stood up to the bully and in his first real test, he blinked. In reluctantly agreeing to meet this Friday, he has shown his nervousness. In the maliciousness with which his people have attacked Chief Theresa Spence this week, he has shown his fear.

By all reports, Mr. Harper is not inclined to negotiate, preferring to dictate the terms through which he gets what he wants. His former Minister of Indian Affairs and potential successor, Jim Prentice, warned against this approach twice in the past year. In June, Mr. Prentice said, "the constitutional obligation to consult with first nations is not a corporate obligation. It is the federal government's responsibility.  Finally, these issues cannot be resolved by regulatory fiat -- they require negotiation. The real risk is not regulatory rejection but regulatory approval, undermined by subsequent legal challenges and the absence of 'social licence' to operate." And in September Mr. Prentice again warned that pipeline projects were threatened by the failure to consult and accommodate First Nations rights and interests.

However, on Friday, Mr. Harper is not going to repeal the legislation that prompted the Idle No More protests. In fact, he has little to offer from his usual bag of tricks -- more individualism through reduced communal rights, increasing entrepreneurial activity by putting at risk the loss of Indigenous lands, or formal equality that eliminates constitutional rights -- making one wonder what he thinks can be achieved on January 11. After working very hard to convince Canada that First Nations are both historical anachronisms without relevance in today's world and corrupt fiefdoms devoted to fiscal profligacy, he has little trust to contribute toward resolution of the conflict.

And so, he will try to bluff his way through, to buy time until the storm passes, as he did by proroguing Parliament in the past. Apparently, he will focus on proposals for a First Nations Education Act and the creation of a working group on treaties. Despite the fact that Chiefs have rejected the process by which the education bill is being developed, Harper no doubt believes it plays well with the Canadian public and he knows that education is the priority for many First Nations.  In this way, he can paint his opposition as being against improving education outcomes, try to undermine growing public support, and perhaps divide First Nations against themselves.  Without a radical change in attitude, the treaties working group has equally little hope of producing a positive outcome.

Mr. Harper's approach will not work, but he has shown no capacity to admit his mistakes and change course, nor would a truly new relationship fit within his ideology. This should be a grave concern to the economic interests that he seeks to serve.

The greater concern may be that he is intent on provoking greater conflict. He may believe that this is the last chance in the long history of failure that is the policy of assimilation and, therefore, is making one final effort to get through intimidation what even his own former Minister has told him can only be achieved through honest negotiation.

This is part three of a four part series in advance of Friday's meeting. Tomorrow, justice.

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