Hill Dispatches

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Karl Nerenberg has been reporting on federal politics from Parliament Hill for rabble.ca since September, 2011. In his long career, he has won numerous awards as a broadcaster and documentary filmmaker.

Facts are facts: The ugly truth about the Crown-First Nations relationship

| January 7, 2013
Facts are facts: The ugly truth about the Crown-First Nations relationship

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The ugly truths about Canada's relationship with its Aboriginal peoples do not seem to get better from year to year.

Many of the facts we've related in this space over the past year and a half remain all-too relevant today.

'Developing country' standard of living

Here is one of those facts.

The research institute, the Centre for the Study of Living Standards (CSLS), did a study of the economic situation of the 300,000 on-reserve aboriginal people.

The CSLS found that while the on-reserve group accounts for about one per cent of the Canadian population, it can only lay claim to less than one-third of one per cent of Canada's Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

On-reserve Aboriginal people are not just poorer than the rest of us; they occupy an entirely different economic sphere, with a standard of living more in line with that of a developing country than a wealthy and prosperous member of the G8.

AG vigorously condemned federal government mismanagement

Here is another fact.

"I am profoundly disappointed to note ... that ...a disproportionate number of First Nations people still lack the most basic services that other Canadians take for granted."

Those are the words of then-Auditor General Sheila Fraser in her last report to Parliament, in June 2011.

In her final report to Canadians, Fraser had to sadly conclude that "after 10 years in this job, it has become clear to me that if First Nations communities on reserves are going to see meaningful progress in their well-being, a fundamental change is needed."

When he responded to this critique, months later, Aboriginal Affairs Deputy Minister Michael Wernick said he agreed with Fraser, and laid the blame for lack of progress in basic service such as education and housing on the unworkable funding system.

An absurd way to fund basic services

How does that funding "system" -- if one were to dignify it with such a name -- work?

Here's what happens.

Tiny and often remote First Nations communities must negotiate time-limited agreements for basic services with the federal government. The bands often have very scant accounting and managerial expertise, and their federal government interlocutors are far away and only vaguely familiar with the bands' real-life situation.

It is a noblesse oblige system that seems almost designed to engender the kind of accounting and governance challenges we have seen in Attawapiskat, and elsewhere.

(The mainstream media are making a big fuss about a federal government commissioned audit of Attawapiskat that was pretty negative, but have never thought fit to explain the flawed system that is at the root of the problems.)

Sheila Fraser noted this all in her June 2011 report.

In his response, Aboriginal Affairs' Wernick told a Parliamentary Committee that he fully recognized the frustrating absurdity of the system, but could not change it without federal legislation.

The Deputy Minister also admitted that the federal government is out of its depth, faced with the challenge of providing services such as education that are for the most part provincial responsibilities in Canada. We have a lot to learn from the provinces, he confessed to the Committee members.

And, on that matter, the Canadian government commissioned a group to study First Nations education, which reported nearly a year ago. If implemented the group's recommendations would help address many of the governance and accountability issues. So far, there has been no action, nothing but vague mumbling from the government.

Natural resources are a key issue

And here is yet another fact.

There are natural resources in First Nations country that businesses would very much like to exploit -- as would the federal government, for which resource development is a major priority.

A case in point: the James and Hudson's Bay region of Ontario is rich in minerals -- gold and diamonds, especially -- and is a hotbed of mining activity. Because this is the 21st century and it would be unseemly to ride entirely roughshod over the rights of Native peoples, this mining activity has been accompanied by extensive "negotiations" with First Nations communities.

The aim of these talks is to set up "Impact Benefit Agreements" -- IBAs -- between the multinational mining corporations and the small, isolated and poor First Nations communities.

When Quebec wanted to develop the hydro potential of its north, in the 1970s, the courts and international financiers would not allow it to carry out micro-negotiations with each Cree or Inuit village.

Quebec had to negotiate with the peoples of the entire region. The result was an over-arching, comprehensive land claims agreement, a modern-day treaty. It is not perfect; but it is a far cry from what is happening in Northern Ontario.

In Ontario, De Beers, and the others who want to get their hands on Canadian gold and diamonds, are not under the same compunction as was the government of Quebec almost 40 years ago. Today, the mining companies are free to cherry pick the individual bands one-by-one, and virtually dictate terms.

The bands have no leverage. In fact, negotiations have sometimes started only after the mining operations were already underway. Talk about being faced with a fait accompli!

Natural resources, legally and constitutionally, were long ago assigned to the provinces.

The white men who drafted the BNA Act would have split their guts laughing if anyone had suggested that the new Canadian federation should assign ownership of any mineral or other resources to "Indians!"

Of course, there were no "Indians" at the constitutional table, back then. (Hell, those "Indians" didn't even get the right to vote until nearly 100 years later, in 1960!)

And so we now have these Impact Benefit Agreements with De Beers and other companies for a number of Northern Ontario aboriginal communities. Were they real negotiations between equals, leading to bona fide agreements?

As Winston Churchill might have put it: "Some negotiations! Some agreements!"

Big disappointments on employment and training

The federal government funded Canadian Business Ethics Research Network (CBERN) has studied and reported on these agreements and concludes that, though there have been growing pains, the IBAs have been at least somewhat beneficial.

However, when you read the details of the CBERN reports for each agreement, a very different picture emerges.

At the outset, the CBERN reports there was almost always distrust and misunderstanding.

The CBERN's reports invariably say, in the words of one chief, "these negotiations were difficult. We were not always confident that De Beers understood and respected our ways."

Or, as another put it more bluntly: "De Beers came in ignorant of our culture and interests ..."

The agreements are usually confidential.

But, despite that confidentiality, CBERN can report that most agreements include some sort of training and employment provisions, and in almost every case, it says, the results on those fronts are not good.

Aboriginal people, it seems, lack the needed technical qualifications and education to work in the mines; and the institutions to provide that education and training are simply not there.

CBERN evaluations repeatedly mention First Nations' frustration with lack of progress in education and training.

Commenting on the training and education concerns of one community, the Moose Cree band, the CBERN wrote:

"Although the agreement includes funding for developing job training and education programs, these provisions have been largely under-utilized ... [P]art of the problem has to do with De Beers' insistence on making use of existing Northern College facilities and personnel in Moosonee, while the First Nation would prefer developing a new program to offer through the First Nation’s community centre. In this case, De Beers' actions are perceived by some as negatively impacting the implementation of the agreement, since the company’s control of funding allows it to select the institution to host the job training program."

And here is the kicker:

"While such issues do little to impact the rate of production and success of mining activities, they can undermine the partnership ethic within the Impact Benefit Agreement, and have led to stalled implementation of locally-significant provisions such as employment and training."

That last statement just about sums things up.

As it stands now, the larger "white" society can all too often get what it wants from "Indian Country" without recognizing First Nations ownership or rights.

And even when there is a pretense of an agreement, "white society" -- and especially, the business community -- can carry on profitably, at will, even if its First Nations interlocutors argue they have not received even the little that was promised.

All of that is why ownership and control of natural resources is very much at the heart of the Idle No More movement. 

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