Indian and Northern Affairs Canada's (INAC's) recent round of cuts to national Aboriginal organizations, regional First Nation organizations and tribal councils are very telling about the policy direction in which we are headed. This policy direction is most definitely backwards in time -- say 50 to 100 years or so. Canada has come nearly full circle in its treatment of Indigenous peoples. Canada went from (1) creating a mythic "race" of Indians to be divided, controlled and assimilated, (2) to recognizing (at least somewhat) that First Nations are diverse, have the inherent right to be self-determining (although limited) and that Aboriginal and treaty rights must be addressed (even though we didn't agree on how), (3) back to treating all "Indians" as one big problem that needs to be eliminated.
The two major policy objectives of this Harper government have been clear from the very beginning -- it is about getting rid of Indians once and for all and turning Canada into one massive extractive industry. Harper is trying to position himself as a world power and he needs our land and resource treasury to do that. If there is one thing you can guarantee about power-mongers is that social justice, the rule of law and consideration for future generations is not consistent with world domination. Harper may have some competition if Mitt Romney is elected as President in the United States, but that is another disaster for another day.
INAC has always used a system of financial rewards and punishments to try to force First Nations into certain policy directions. This is not an easy task. It requires a colossal bureaucracy at INAC to control First Nations, manage their expectations and steer them in the direction which suits the Minister of the day. When you take a Nation's land, resources and citizens away, then use all the profits to sustain your ever increasing bureaucracy and other pet projects (militaries, submarines and fighter jets) then that Nation is essentially held at ransom. Most, if not all First Nations have at least some citizens who need to eat, access clean water, and have safe, warm housing. If you hold access to those basic human needs over the heads of leadership, their practical choices become quite limited.
By keeping First Nations chronically under-funded for all essential human services, they will always be subject, at least in some way, to undue pressure by INAC's bureaucracy. In some cases, the extent of the poverty is so severe that the situation goes from one of undue duress to what some have called "extortion" (obtaining money or property from someone through coercion, commonly practiced by organized crime). If you bring people to the brink of starvation, disease and hopelessness in order to get their agreement to give up their rights, how is this not at least undue duress?
Harper's plan is very clear -- eliminating all history, obligations and mention of First Nations from Canada. His former advisor, Tom Flanagan, has tried for years to sell the idea of reinvigorating attempts to assimilate Indians and get rid of reserves, treaty rights and any form of distinct identity. The very racist, derogatory language and ideologies used to try to promote assimilation prevented a much wider audience from listening. Now, with the "new" more fringe right-wing Conservatives in power, they have adapted their tactics. People like Flanagan and Harper use First Nations people to sell their wares now. From Conservative Senator Patrick Brazeau who acts as Harper's mouth piece tearing apart First Nations at every chance he gets, to Manny Jules, head of the First Nation Tax Commission who now promotes the destuction of reserves and the biggest assimilation policy plan created in recent years: the nationalizing of First Nations.
One need only look at INAC's recent announcement to see exactly where they get their authority to cut funding to First Nation organizations, the ideology they are using, what their ultimate objective is, and who is benefitting (aka leading the charge). First off, INAC is focusing on what they call "self-sufficiency" which means First Nations that are self-funded. This is ironic, given that all Canadians are funded off the wealth and profits that come from our lands and resources. Were it not for our gas, oil, minerals, fishery, forestry, rivers, trade routes and lands, Canadians would not have such a high standard or living nor would government have the funds to pay for health, education and other services for Canadians. Taxpayers don't pay our way, we pay THEIR way and we are kept in starvation mode for it.
So, we know that their ultimate objective it to eventually cut all funding to First Nations and their political organizations and Canada will do this in a dramatic, albeit staged approach. No surprise here, we knew this was coming. The AFN has been woefully inactive on this front hoping the issue would simply go away. Well, it hasn't and it's here and we have to face it. INAC's ideology is also telling -- they want to treat all First Nations the same. Regardless of what region, treaty area, territory or Nation we are from, INAC will fund everyone the same. INAC is back using the concept of treating us all as one mythic race of Indians and what is good for one is good for all.
We all know that northern communities are not in the same position as those in the south. The poverty levels vary across the country as do the housing crisis, flooding crisis, suicide crisis, water crisis, food insecurity crisis, and education, advocacy, and governance capacities. Mohawks have different laws, rules, cultures, languages and trade systems than do Mi'kmaq, Cree or Anishinabek. Some of us have treaties and others do not. There never was one race of "Indians" and to treat us like that in terms of funding ties our identities to federal laws, policies, recognition systems for one reason only -- assimilation. In other words, they legislate who we are, who gets to be us and when we no longer exist. The funding cuts will just help this process along.
Provinces and territories ought to take notice as well. Look at how Canada purports to change the constitutional jurisdictional relationship in section 91(24) from "Indians and lands reserved for the Indians" to "only Indians that live on a reserve". For many communities, this will cut funding even more severely than can be seen in the announcement. First Nations will be assessed based solely on their on-reserve populations, which for many is about half their population. In other cases, some have 80 per cent of their populations off-reserve, but are still responsible for them in a variety of ways. This is also no surprise as Canada has been trying to figure out how to deal with the inevitable court cases which find Indian status (registration) rules to be discriminatory. Their idea to reduce financial obligations is to slowly and quietly transition to an on-reserve population funding model versus a total band membership model.
In the announcement, INAC explains that future funding will be based on "our shared priorities". In case you are wondering where they got their shared priorities one need only refer back to the Crown-First Nations Gathering (CFNG) and the AFN-INAC Joint Action Plan which came out as a result. Harper was very clear in his speech that he would be getting rid of "incentives" (aka funding) and promoting "individuals" (aka breaking up reserves). The whole speech was designed to promote "integration" (aka assimilation). Harper said he would impose a suite of legislation and he is keeping his promises. There should be no shock about what is happening -- the only issue is how we deal with it. In this case, the AFN opted to sign a Joint Action Plan, without the consent of the different regions in Canada to do exactly what Harper outlined.
All this to say, that INAC wants First Nations to "seek out new funding sources". Easy for INAC to say because they have already taken 99.8 per cent of our lands, most of our resources, and many of our people. What would these new funding sources look like? Well, one can imagine corporations like Enbridge and other pipelines, oil and gas companies, hydro companies, mining companies, nuclear or waste disposal companies and others would be a perfect fit.
Canada privatizes our reserves + First Nations need to provide food, water and housing to their citizens = sale of our remaining lands to Enbridge et al.
Just in case First Nations are unsure about how to proceed, they will no longer have funding for organizations to provide advisory services in the areas of economic development, financial management, community planning or governance. But that's okay, because there is a new National Chief in town, and his name is Manny Jules. Manny Jules and his national organizations will solve all Indian problems -- you will have your choice of:
a) First Nation Tax Commission (Manny Jules) imposing tax regimes on your reserve or
b) Reserve lands becoming provincial lands subject to provincial taxation;
a) First Nations Financial Management Board (Harold Calla) manage your community's finances or
b) Third party management by any number of high-priced financial consultants (except your own);
3. Economic Development
a) Aboriginal Economic Development Board (Clarence Louis) will advise INAC on how best to develop your reserve lands or
b) INAC will unilaterally unlock your lands and then develop them for you;
4. Reserve Lands
a First Nations Land Title Institute (Manny's proposed idea) will take over your reserve lands or
b) Find alternate funding to support your First Nation when INAC cuts all funds;
a) Allow your First Nations to be subsumed under one National Aboriginal Organization or
b) Have all of your political, advisory and governance funding cut by INAC.
These are the choices being presented to First Nations by Canada: assimilate or stay on the rez. It is a false choice of course, because there are so many more meaningful options which come from our traditional ways of governing, learning, trading, sustaining and relating. The hardest choice of all will be deciding to do things differently, doing things our way, and making the necessary short-term sacrifices to ensure the long-term future for our children.
This is a sign of things to come -- they will cut funding to First Nations even more. They will amend the constitution, they will breach and even try to extinguish our rights and they will do their best to assimilate us. We all own this -- we all have a responsibility to make the changes we need. If we don't care enough about our families, communities and Nations to at least try -- no one else will.
No one says it will be easy, in fact, I can guarantee it will be hard. We have a lot of work to do to gain back the faith and loyalty of our citizens and conversely, our citizens have work to do in supporting their Nations. We have a lot of issues to deal with internally, but that is our conversation to have amongst ourselves. The frustration of grass roots peoples with their leaders and organizations is very real and must be addressed. The frustration of leaders with Canada and the over-whelming task of trying to solve all the problems alone is also very real.
The issue which faces us is not a battle between traditional leaders and Indian Act leaders, between men and women, or between on and off-reserve. The colonizers have done a good job of dividing us, confusing us and aligning us along their own ideologies about class, status, and individualism. If we could forgive ourselves for being colonized and for struggling with decolonization and healing, then the space would open up to work on this problem.
We can let Canada's plan unfold or there is a place where our peoples can meet in the middle, start over, face the problems honestly and openly, and start the healing journey towards changing our communities for the better.
A longer version of this piece is available at Indigenous Nationhood.