Wikileaks comes to Canada: Federal failure on aboriginal rights

You just know things are bad when the U.S. criticizes Canada for its treatment of Indigenous people. Wikileaks late last week released a memo from the American Embassy in Ottawa to Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, outlining a land claim process that is hopelessly mired in bureaucracy, costly court cases, allegations of the mismanagement of First Nations funds and assets, and the lack of any lucid definition of aboriginal rights.

The disparaging memo, which dates back to August of 2009, ends rather pessimistically. "As long as Canada lacks a clear definition of aboriginal rights or a uniform model for negotiations, effective mechanisms to resolve aboriginal grievances in a timely manner will remain elusive." One might be tempted to think that in the time it took to sift through the thousands of documents made available to Wikileaks, some progress might have been made. One might be mistaken.

As embarrassing as this little piece of diplomatic correspondence might be, it pales beside the Harper government's behavior on the world stage. When the UN General Assembly voted on the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2007, Canada was one of only four countries to vote against (143 voted in favour). No wonder they have no lucid definition of aboriginal rights -- they wouldn't recognize them if place under their nose, in triplicate. Even the U.S., another naysayer infamous for voting against UN rights legislation, has since changed its tune, with President Obama expressing support for the Declaration.

But wait, there's more! On the eve of a federal election, no doubt after some bright light mentioned that, yes, Indigenous people do vote, Mr. Harper has declared that his government will finally endorse the UN Declaration. Aren't elections run by Navigator wonderful? On the home front, however, things aren't looking so great for Canada's First Nations, Inuit and Métis. The Harper government still hasn't budged on the Kelowna Accord -- an amazing piece of consensus between several Indigenous groups, First Ministers and representatives of the Federal government.

In the dying days of Canada's last minority Liberal government, they actually did something right -- produced a landmark agreement that would see the reduction of poverty, the addressing of health issues like clean water, housing, addiction, teen suicide, violence against women, and a host of other issues. Over a period of 18 months, a series of agreements between the Government of Canada, First Ministers of the Provinces, Territorial Leaders, and the leaders of five national aboriginal organizations in Canada were hammered out. The resulting Accord sought to improve the education, employment, and living conditions for Aboriginal peoples through governmental funding and other programs. It also pledged $5.1 billion over five years to implement the agreement.

Alas, it was not to be so. Harper's first budget, presented in 2006, squashed the Accord and cut funding to Indigenous programs by 80 per cent. The little funding the budget contained was contingent on "surplus funding", meaning, "you'll get your money if it's expedient -- for us".

Aboriginal, territorial and provincial leaders were disgusted by the clear contempt shown for a process that had all involved working together for a common purpose, regardless of political affiliation. Grand Chief Stewart Phillip of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs had this to say:

"Our fear, suspicion and mistrust of the [Conservative] government to support the historic Kelowna Accord were well placed. I had hoped, however, that the [Conservative] government would have the integrity and political will to fully implement the historic Kelowna Accord representing a $5.1 billion dollar investment in Aboriginal communities."

There were no funds for aboriginal health care identified in the 2006 Harper budget (at the time, a serious tuberculosis outbreak at Garden Hill First Nation had 27 identified cases and 86 identified contacts. All perpetuated by many crowded, mouldy houses. Clean water, housing, childhood diabetes, suicide rates among young people -- all deemed unimportant by the Harper Conservatives.

Fortunately, the rest of Parliament didn't let it go. Former PM Paul Martin introduced private members Bill C-292, the Kelowna Accord Implementation Act.

In a report supporting Bill C-292, the Native Women's Association of Canada said to the Standing Committee on Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development "the Accord was not simply a political ploy by then Prime Minister Martin to gain the Aboriginal vote. And it was not written ‘on the back of a napkin'" (The NWAC is referring to comments made in the House by members of the Conservative government).

Bill C-292 did pass, but without the $5.1 billion in essential funding attached to the Kelowna Accord. Private Members bills cannot compel government spending. Healthcare, education, poverty reduction, protection of women against violence (over 500 Indigenous women have been murdered or have disappeared in the past 15 years) -- none of these things seem to be on Harper's radar, unless of course they provide good optics going forward into an election he is desperate to win.

It's like Status of Women Minister Rona Ambrose singling out Sisters in Spirit for praise for their documentation of murdered and missing women, just weeks before the Harper government pulled their funding. Pretty posturing that leaves a lingering scent of rotting garbage -- a hallmark of the ever lame Conservative PR machine.

Meg Borthwick is one of the moderators of babble, rabble.ca's political discussion forum.

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