Indigenous voting: Real change or just neo-colonialism?

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Definition of NEOCOLONIALISM (Merriam-Webster)[and as amended by me]: The economic and political policies by which a great power [Settler-State] indirectly maintains or extends its influence over other areas [Aboriginal Title or Treaty Territories] or [Indigenous] people[s]

For the first time in Canadian history there is a movement by many First Nation leaders and First Nation Peoples to vote in the upcoming federal election. It will be the first time for many First Nation Peoples to vote, including the Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde, who announced at a press conference he wasn't voting and then after a few days, apparently under pressure from some Chiefs, reversed himself and announced he was voting for the first time.

Most First Nation Peoples lack experience with the political culture and responsibilities as a Canadian citizen of voting in federal elections, getting involved with the structure and machinations of federal political parties and candidates, the Parliamentary system of government, as well as assessing the past and current issues of the Electoral Riding where they are located. This has now become even more complicated to assess with the passage of the Fair Elections Act, bringing changes to voting rules and boundaries of many Federal Ridings -- even creating 30 new Ridings -- making past voting patterns difficult if not impossible to use to predict the outcome of this election at the riding level.

This movement to vote by First Nation leaders and Peoples is motivated to by the desire for real change and the desire to vote out Stephen Harper and his Conservative Party of Canada after ten years of regressive Conservative-imposed legislation and policies ideologically designed to attack the rights of First Nations by:

  • Removing Aboriginal Peoples as a federal policy and spending priority
  • Ignoring the Liberal's 2005 AFN-Canada Political Accord on Aboriginal and Treaty rights and the Kelowna Accord on Aboriginal programs & services
  • Focusing on individual rights to undermine the collective rights of First Nations.
  • Cutting, capping and/or off-loading spending for First Nation organizations, programs and services
  • Using existing federal policies of Land Claims and Self-Government to coerce agreements with First Nations that release Canada from liabilities for past wrongs while limiting/emptying out section 35 of Canada's constitution of any significant legal, political or economic meaning
  • Maintaining the racist, colonial Indian Act while imposing further assimilatory amendments and related laws specific to First Nations
  • Maintaining the Third Party Management system to control and manage the monies and administrations of First Nation Peoples, which has been approved and allocated by Parliament

This is the context for a review of the proposed changes the three national federal political parties are now promising to Aboriginal Peoples and Canada in the 42nd federal election.

Aside from the billions of dollars promised in their respective platforms for Aboriginal education health, housing and infrastructure, the Greens, Liberals and NDP all promise a "Nation-to-Nation" approach, partnership, relationship and process.

The Greens, Liberals and NDP also promise to:

  • respect the Inherent and Treaty rights of Indigenous Peoples;
  • uphold or implement the principles of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples;
  • launch a National Inquiry into Indigenous Murdered and Missing Women and Girls;
  • remove the 2 per cent cap on First Nation Programs;
  • and address problems with the current "land claims" processes.

Each of the three parties have other policy and spending promises in addition to the big ones listed above.

On the surface these are big promises, but the devil is in the details, which are lacking from all three national parties. This gives the parties much latitude to interpret their promises such as "Nation-to-Nation" or "Inherent right" as they want to, should they form the government.

For example, the Greens, Liberal and NDP all say they will take action or implement the UNDRIP. Article 3 of UNDRIP provides:

Indigenous peoples have the right to self-determination. By virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development.

Yet, Canada's 1995 Aboriginal Self-Government policy, which a federal Liberal government imposed, states:

The inherent right of self-government does not include a right of sovereignty in the international law sense…

Where is the freedom of First Nations to choose their political status or their own economic, social and cultural development? None of the three national parties have explicitly promised to rescind this federal self-government policy that is a blatant denial of the Indigenous Inherent right of self-government and self-determination as "Peoples" in international law?

In fact, the Liberals are now promising that, should they form government, they will "ensure that the Kelowna Accord -- and the spirit of reconciliation that drove it -- is embraced, and its objectives implemented in a manner that meets today's challenges."

Yet, Justin Trudeau ignores the First Nations -- Federal Crown Political Accord on the Recognition and Implementation of First Nation Governments, signed the same year as the Kelowna Accord by a federal Liberal government. In that Accord on First Nation Government the federal Liberal government committed to:

New policy approaches for the recognition and implementation of First Nation governments, including mechanisms for managing and coordinating renewed and ongoing intergovernmental relationships, and assessment of the potential for a 'First Nation Governments Recognition Act'

Of course it's not surprising the Liberals haven't mentioned this Political Accord, which -- like the Kelowna Accord -- died when the Harper government came to power in 2006.

It was a federal Liberal government in the 1993 federal election that committed a Liberal government would recognize the inherent right of self-government as an existing right within the meaning of s. 35 of the Constitution Act, 1982. However, after the election in 1995 the federal Liberal government issued the Federal Self-Government Policy that I have quoted from above, which claims to recognize an "Inherent right" but requires the self-government powers, even internal powers, are to be negotiated with the federal and provincial governments who under the policy terms hold a veto in negotiations, which makes the term "Inherent right" in the policy meaningless.

I cite this example of the past federal Liberal promises and policy to show how details are very important when it comes to Aboriginal Platform promises of federal parties and how they will interpret their promises into policy if they form a government.

This example is from my own experience -- and the new Indigenous voters will find out -- that opposition parties make plenty of promises on Aboriginal issues until they form the government and find out the real numbers on the federal books. Then the new government is faced with the political, economic and fiscal realities of satisfying their Canadian electorate, who are predominately non-Indigenous, and the corporate class, in managing the economy, choosing policy and spending priorities in a Throne Speech and a budget.

The federal bureaucracy will also have its influence on a prime minister and Cabinet in mitigating any proposed changes to Aboriginal policy from the status quo, particularly if it shifts power or money from the federal government to First Nations.

So for those Indigenous voters who want real change after 10 years of the Harper government you may find yourself disappointed should the Liberals or NDP form the government.

As previous studies have shown, including the RCAP report, it will take an additional tens of billions of dollars on top of the annual $9 billion or so the federal government spends on Aboriginal Peoples to close the social and economic gap between First Nations Peoples and the rest of Canada. Indigenous voters will have to monitor the federal government's first budget to see if what was promised makes it into the 2016 budget and then into departmental spending estimates.

Historically, Canada views much of its spending on First Nations as "discretionary", rather than based on "legal obligations", which is why a more expansive policy interpretation of section 35 is necessary for a fair and just share of finances being allocated to First Nation Peoples.

In the end, First Nation voters and especially Aboriginal federal candidates, by participating in the federal election process, are legitimizing the federal Parliamentary system of government. All of the national Parliamentary symbols and oaths of Canada reinforce the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Canada, which is based upon the racist, colonial notion of the Doctrine of Discovery.

In my view real change will be achieved only if the federal government uses its political and legal powers to ensure that First Nations get a significant amount of lands and natural resources that have been stolen from First Nations by Canada (or France and Britain) returned and Indigenous sovereignty and self-determination respected by Canada to develop a real sustainable economy for First Nations.

Russell Diabo is Editor and Publisher of an online newsletter on First Nations political and legal issues the First Nations Strategic Bulletin. Mr. Diabo is a member of the Mohawk Nation at Kahnawake, Quebec, and has been an activist on First Nation issues since the age of 16 and is part of the Defenders of the Land Network. He works closely with Idle No More under a joint agreement between these two networks to work together.

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