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The cacophony of nonsense emanating from several sides last week was so deafening, key messages were lost in the din. As a service, I have answers to the top three questions you may have seen in media last week concerning First Nations.
First, the big one: is the improvement in record keeping that occurred in Attawapiskat since Chief Spence was elected proof of fraud?
I confess, I framed the question to make plain the absurdity and maliciousness of the reporting last week.
The audit of expenditures between April 2005 and November 2011 showed that, of 400 transactions reviewed, 323 (or 80.7%) had some kind of insufficiency in documentation. Among those, auditors looked at 100 transactions for the period following April 2010 and found 31 (or 31%) had similar issues. Since Chief Spence was elected in late August 2010, she was responsible for some portion of those 31, a significant improvement in fiscal management by her administration.
No doubt there is much more to say in defence of and in challenge to Chief Spence’s administration, but compare the generalized outrage last week to the shrug elicited by the non-indigenous mayors around the country who have resigned after corruption allegations, are currently being investigated for fraud or sued for conflict of interest.
By the standard applied to First Nations, the situations in Montreal, Laval, Mascouche, London, Toronto, Mississauga and Winnipeg are proof that all non-indigenous governments are corrupt and mismanaged and should have their funding cut off. Such logic would suggest that Canadian citizens don’t deserve clean drinking water or schools for their kids since they are too lazy to insist on proper governance.
The unabashed complicity of the mainstream media in carrying out this hatchet job for the Harper government and unleashing a torrent of racism should be the subject of professional examination and deep personal shame for those involved.
Second, many in the punditry wondered ‘what those Indians want after all’.
There is a strong desire to liken IdleNoMore (INM) to the Occupy movement, which (according to some media) failed because it didn’t have a clear answer about what needed to be done. In this way, it can be suggested INM will fail too. The implicit inability to recognize and understand the clarity of the answers already provided says a lot about whose failure this is.
First Nations point to the 1996 report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples for a host of very clear and detailed answers, a strategy for implementation, and an answer to a lot of the historical questions one might ask. They point to treaties, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and section 35 of the constitution for legal background. And the AFN released a document spelling out 8 points of consensus reached between the Chiefs last week that helped to prioritize the immediate steps needed. No doubt it is the failure of First Nations to clarify what they want that leads to misunderstanding.
Third, will internal divisions among First Nations leaders’ differences lead to failure?
This is actually a legitimate question, but overblown and poorly understood.
Among First Nations leaders last week there was fierce debate over what it means to attend a meeting with the Prime Minister. The venue, timing, attendance and agenda issues around the meeting with Prime Minister Harper were all discussed at length, as was the role of the Governor General. These may seem small and simple matters and they likely could have been sorted out with little notice in calmer times. But the urgency of hunger strikers’ weakening health, leaders’ perceived need to get out in support of grassroots activism and some petty political manoeuvring all upped the ante.
Media were pretty excited about the conflicting opinions, with reporters circling the playground at the Delta Hotel in Ottawa yelling “fight, fight” as loud as they could, then shaking their heads in feigned regret when people argued publicly.
The truth is that leaders don’t always agree, in part because they answer to different constituencies. They come from different places, different nations, and different circumstances. Some are elected, some are not, and some are elected to do a job that others don’t seem to completely understand. Their difference over tactics reflected this.
As I see it, the problem was in the attempt to predict how others might perceive the various choices to be made. This is rarely the path to doing the right thing.
Some were concerned that allowing Mr. Harper to set the meeting terms would mean that he would treat it as he has in the past, an inconvenience to be forgotten quickly thereafter.
Some worried about whether Chief Spence was dissatisfied with the arrangements and would continue her hunger strike. If so, going to such a meeting might allow the government to pretend it had met her demands and somehow wash its hands of her situation. The moral consequences of that decision would weigh heavily.
Some worried that the meeting couldn’t possibly satisfy the demands of their constituents, which would put the responsiveness of their own leadership in question.
And some, especially the AFN one might assume, add the worry that snubbing the Prime Minister at a meeting for which they had asked would lead to retribution, a continued worsening of an unhealthy relationship, and even the possible discontinuation of all funding. That could put the continued existence of the organization in question and would reduce the effective voice of First Nations at a critical juncture.
In three days, under intense pressures from various sources, they did not agree. The interim result satisfies no one. Harsh things were said, feelings were hurt, and friendships have been damaged. In the past, people have been able to rebuild. We shall see whether that can be done again.
While that happens, the rest of us may want to look closely at who acted with integrity, consistently did what they said they would do, and were able to explain the reasons for their actions openly.
We may want to examine very closely those who did not act quite as honourably and what their motivations might have been.
And, amongst that latter group, we may want to take a hard look at the role of certain media in exacerbating problems, fabricating stories, and undermining progress for Indigenous peoples in this country.