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Indigenous Nationhood

Pamela Palmater's picture
Dr. Pamela D. Palmater is a Mi'kmaw lawyer and member of the Eel River Bar First Nation in New Brunswick. She teaches Indigenous law, politics and governance at Ryerson University and heads their Centre for Indigenous Governance.

Budget 2012: The battle lines have been drawn for Canada's Indigenous peoples

| March 30, 2012

The Conservative budget was released today with most mainstream political commentators wiping their brows, saying "Phewf, we thought it would be much worse!" People like Kevin O'Leary were asking why the Conservative government didn't go further to open up Canada for international investment. Others were relieved that only 19,200 federal public service jobs would be lost as opposed to the 60,000 that were predicted. Still others were wondering what the streamlined environmental review processes might mean.

The area with which I am most concerned relates to what was and was not in the budget for Indigenous Peoples. I am not surprised by this budget, in fact, it is just about exactly what I predicted it would be. What I am surprised about is how the Assembly of First Nations' National Chief Shawn Atleo could possibly think this was a good budget.

Atleo says: "The investments in education in today's budget indicate that the voices of our youth are perhaps beginning to be heard...". Well, let's look what was and was not provided for First Nation education:

For elementary and secondary education (K-12), approximately $1.5 billion in extra funding is needed this year to have an education system almost on par with the provinces. This budget only provided $100M for this year, most of which will go to early literacy (and not in our languages).

For post-secondary education (PSE), we have an estimated need of half a billion dollars for this year as we have no less than 10,000 First Nation students on a waiting list to go to university. This budget appears to provide $0 for PSE.

Atleo says that "First Nations will seize this momentum to move forward to real reform and reconciliation." What momentum? According to the documents the AFN provided, over $6.7 billion is required this year to properly fund K-12 education and address the cumulative shortfall. The Cons provided only four per cent of what is actually needed. I fail to see how this is momentum. The current cap on funding is at two per cent -- this is but a fraction more.

Let's put these numbers into proper perspective. INAC estimates that it will add approximately 45,000 people as status Indians as a result of the Bill C-3 amendment to the Indian Act. It has also estimated that upwards of 50,000 new status Indians will be added because of the new Qalipu band. This is a total of 95,000 new status Indians to be added to the 704,851 INAC's website claims are currently registered. This is an increase in the registered population of approximately 14 per cent through registration alone. Offering an additional four per cent of what is actually needed for the current population for education is an insult, but considering the new population, it is no increase at all.

Given that education is a treaty right, this amounts to an overt violation of First Nations treaties and very clear signal that there will be no future of increased, flexible, permanent funding set aside for First Nations education. The fact that no money was set aside for an increase in PSE is a further sign of things to come. The Cons have drawn their line in the sand and NC Atleo continues as if oblivious to the impending battle.

I don't see any "real reform and reconciliation" in a budget that offers $330 million for water infrastructure over two years when the actual need is $6.578 billion. This amounts to approximately five per cent of what is actually needed. If it cost your family $20,000 to install plumbing in your house to run water and have proper sanitation, what good would $1,000 do if you didn't have the other $19,000? What kind of reform is that? Again, the Conservatives are laughing in the face of the current crisis of poverty in First Nations while NC Atleo praises them for "real reconciliation".

This year the whole world saw first hand what the crisis in First Nation housing looks like. The pictures from Attawapiskat First Nation showed people living in unheated sheds with no running water. The media frenzy which followed shamed Harper into having a Crown-First Nation Gathering that had been promised several times over his years in office, but which never came to fruition. It was Attawapiskat that brought about that "historic" meeting and not NC Atleo, despite claims otherwise.

Yet, not a single cent was dedicated to address the crisis in First Nation housing. What about this lack of funding for housing speaks of reconciliation? The assimilation scheme of starving the Indians off the reserve is well entrenched in Conservative policy, yet Atleo sees this budget as making "important investments."

I can assure you that I am not seeing monsters where non exist. This assimilation plan for Indians is well-documented in government records and has always been considered by INAC as "the final solution". The Cons are just more aggressive in speeding assimilation along. The budget document focuses on "integration" of Aboriginal peoples into Canadian society -- as a labour source, as tax payers and as individual property owners. Even the constitutionally protected right of Indigenous peoples to be specifically consulted and accommodated on their Aboriginal and treaty rights is translated as consultation (no accommodation) that will be "integrated" into current regulatory processes.

But let's look at what is really happening. The Indian Act is staying in place, as confirmed at the CFNG and the current level of federal control over First Nations will not only be maintained, but will be dramatically increased with the suite of legislation it intends to impose on First Nations. This budget confirmed what we already heard in the CFNG:

(1) Non-Indians will gain interests in reserve lands in the matrimonial real property legislation;

(2) Cons will transfer all liability for water and sewer on reserve to First Nations without funding to address the increased standards;

(3) First Nation education legislation will impose increased standards and force provincial partnerships while not providing additional funds;

(4) Reserves will be opened up to privatization (ownership by individuals) to allow mass sales of reserve lands and facilitate extractive industry activities on our lands; and

(5) Accountability legislation to impose standards on First Nations leaders not imposed on Members of Parliament.

Again, I am really confused how any of this screams "reconciliation." In fact, this entire suite of legislation violates our inherent rights to be self-determining and violates our constitutionally protected Aboriginal and treaty rights to govern our own affairs. It also threatens our communally-held traditional lands and current reserve land holdings. It will result in a dumping of liability and no funding to cope with a whole slew of additional regulations and standards that Canada itself can't meet in First Nations now.

In fairness, Atleo did say "First Nations must be at the table on any discussions that could affects our lands, our lives and our rights". Or what? What is Atleo going to do? He certainly has represented ANY kind of threat to the Cons yet, nor has he publicly offered any real resistance to this run-away assimilation train. He also states that he will get clarity of what all this legislation means and ensure First Nations voices are "respected." Really? Our voices have not been during his whole tenure -- what makes now any different, except maybe that his election is coming up in July?

The fact is, the AFN knows full well what these proposed pieces of legislation mean as they have already testified before the House and Senate on some of them. The focus should not be in ensuring our voice is "respected", it should be in ensuring that our inherent right to be self-determining is respected, implemented and enforced. Our jurisdiction over our own communities is what needs to be recognized. We don't need five more Indian Acts to prescribe how we will live our lives. I don't want my voice to be accommodated in federal legislation -- I don't want the federal legislation.

I honestly wish I could find some positive in what NC Atleo is doing on all our behalves, but I just can't. It is not a personal thing, as I don't know him as a person -- most of us don't and never will. I don't get to vote in AFN elections, so this is not about voting. I have given the issue a great deal of thought and have spoken to a great many people that I trust about my dilemma in criticizing an organization that is set up to advocate on our behalf. It hurts me to do it, but after much contemplation and soul-searching, I feel like I have no choice.

All we, as grassroots people, have to go by is what Atleo does or does not accomplish for us. The proof is in the outcome and this is not the outcome that will move our Nations forward in decolonizing, healing, rebuilding our languages and cultures and protecting our traditional territories for future generations. While Atleo cannot be blamed for the aggressive assimilation plan of the Cons (and I admit, he has a tough political landscape right now), he is to blame if he does not stand up and actively resist it.

Our people are the ones who live in shacks -- now is not the time to tell them their voices are "being heard". Our people are dying pre-mature deaths -- now is not the time to promote "reconciliation." Our people see the impending battle -- now is not the time to "seek clarity." Our people need a leader -- now is not the time to be a politician.

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