Electing race privilege in Saskatchewan

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Saskatchewan is in the closing days of a provincial election. The campaign has been low-key, and the pundits have already proclaimed the electoral success of Brad Wall's Saskatchewan Party. The Liberals have imploded and the Greens are frantically playing catch-up with a new leader, Victor Lau. The former NDP powerhouse is widely predicted to be approaching its worst electoral results in decades, and its leader Dwain Lingenfelter has been the object of Harper-style attack ads by the Sask Party brain trust.

Into this context, some genuine policy discussion has been offered, though it has been poorly framed by both politicians and its codependent media.

Recently Dwain Lingenfelter announced a policy proposal for natural resource revenue sharing between the province of Saskatchewan and First Nations governments. (He failed to take account of off-reserve Aboriginals and Metis.) Lingenfelter noted the disparities between basic public services on and off reserve. Statistics Canada and former auditor-general Sheila Fraser have also noted infrastructure discrepancies between reserve communities, Aboriginal citizens, and "other" Canadians. Assumably a share of natural resource revenue would enable reserve governments to fund essentials for their communities, which are now disabled by the restrictions of the Indian Act and of federal funding.

Discouragingly, Wall responded negatively, demonstrating ignorance of the historical context for Aboriginal poverty and Saskatchewan's wealth. Implying that the economic status quo is already based in equality, he said: "We fundamentally reject the notion of a special natural resource revenue sharing deal for First Nations or any other group in the province."

Even on its own assumptions, Wall's statement is wrong. The province funds a variety of "groups" with both money and tax relief, ranging from Catholic schools to state-subsidized ventures such as the railways. Only Aboriginals, it seems, are a "group" which cannot be part of the provincial largesse.

Then Greg Ottenbreit, Sask Party candidate for Yorkton, in response to a question about such revenue sharing, made comments in an all-candidates forum that are at best mindbogglingly stupid. The CBC reported a news release from Ottenbreit which apologized for the comments, saying "I don't remember my exact words, but I said something like, 'What I have been told by some of my First Nations friends is that sometimes when there are handouts or the money comes free and easy, it can be used for alcohol and drugs.'" (The story can be read here.)

Given the economic evidence, there is no "free and easy" money for Aboriginal people, and the difficulties in Aboriginal communities are caused by the same colonial processes that make Saskatchewan so wealthy. And it is bizarre that Ottenbreit would blame Aboriginals for his misinformation about Aboriginals. That kind of apology, ain't. Yet there has been little outrage about someone seeking elected office to represent a constituency that includes several Aboriginal communities, while holding and sharing these views. The Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations suggested Ottenbreit withdraw from the campaign. Premier Wall indicated there would be no party discipline imposed on Ottenbreit for the matter.

Racism in mainstream politics is nothing new. Still, it disappoints and offends many citizens when its ugly head pops up. Take, for instance, the recent incident precipitated by an on-line video on Conservative MP (Cypress Hills -- Grasslands, Saskatchewan) David Anderson's website. Designed to mock the Canadian Wheat Board, it shows a CWB executive telling a savvy young farmer that he's "talking Eskimo" for planning to sell his grain independently, apparently a phrase intended to indicate foolishness or incomprehensibility. Noted Inuit leader Mary Simon objected, as did New Democrat Nikki Ashton. The video was taken off the website almost immediately.

Racism rationalizes Aboriginal deprivation as the fault of "Those People," and thus exonerates the rest of society from both historical reality and from an obligation to share the wealth now. Perhaps the best evidence of the lack of sharing is in the statistical life chances of Aboriginal children. According to a joint report by the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada (Caring Society) and KAIROS: Canadian Ecumenical Justice Initiatives (KAIROS) in their submission to the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), Aboriginal children "face neglect, abuse and sometimes death as a result of Canada's failure to live up to its obligations under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child." (For more information see "Honouring the Children" on the Kairos website.)

The fact is, Saskatchewan is one of the wealthiest jurisdictions in Canada, itself one of the wealthiest states in the world. That wealth is based primarily on expropriation of Aboriginal lands and exploitation of its resources -- a gift of colonialism, if you will. Those measures were accomplished by governments who legislatively and by force prohibited Aboriginal political and economic equality for nearly a century. One consequence has been the structural institutionalization of what can only be described as "white privilege," so often mistaken for merit. The wealth has not been "shared" with First Nations and Metis peoples, and quality of life indices demonstrate the disparities. The third-world poverty and social immiseration in Aboriginal communities have been noted by several United Nations committees as constituting violation of Canada's obligations at international law, and of the human rights of Aboriginal peoples. And provincial governments hide behind the fig leaf of constitutional jurisdictional arguments to avoid spending on status Indians.

Saskatchewan is not alone in maintaining the conditions of oppression for Aboriginal peoples. The Canadian state is entirely situated in this fashion. But Gary Ottenbreit's wee contretemps serves to remind us all of how race privilege functions to ensure the political significance of some, at the expense of others.

Lingenfelter's proposal for natural resource revenue sharing is a welcome initiative, much in need of detail and budgetary commitment. The erasure of Aboriginal marginalization and poverty should be a matter of collective political commitment. It is essential for justice, and it is a net benefit to our society. All of Saskatchewan's political leaders should bring themselves up to speed on this most urgent item on the provincial agenda, and place it prominently in their campaign platforms.

Joyce Green is a professor of political science at the University of Regina, and is a lifelong scholar and advocate of decolonization. She and her extended family share Cree-Scots Metis, Ktunaxa and British heritages, and struggle to honour and express them all.

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