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Parliament returns with focus on Indigenous issues and Liberal promises

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Photo: flickr/ Graham Perry

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If you were to listen to Conservative attacks you'd think the Trudeau government was soft on Islamic State terrorism, indifferent to the economic travails of the oil and gas industry, too ready to make nice with nasty Iran, insufficiently friendly to Israel, and not as supportive of Ukraine vis-à-vis Russia as it should be.

Conservatives also disapprove of deficits and are not too pleased with the idea of reforming the voting system without a referendum.

Listen to the NDP and you get a completely different story.

Tom Mulcair's third party focuses on the hazards of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, on a federal environmental assessment process that the Environment Commissioner just thoroughly lambasted, on the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal's upholding of Cindy Blackstock's argument that child welfare services on First Nations are underfunded, and on the big gaps in Employment Insurance (after the Conservatives raised the number of hours of work required to qualify).

For good measure, the NDP also brings up home delivery of mail, and reminds the Liberals of their promise to restore it. Or is that what they actually promised?

The Liberals seem to like being in the middle and, so far, have not engaged more than necessary in partisan rhetoric.

The Minister for Democratic Institutions, Maryam Monsef, even wished her Conservative interlocutor a happy birthday.

The Liberals do still think of themselves as the party of the centre, even if, on a few issues, they made a point of leaping left over the NDP during the last campaign.

It may seem long ago now, but you may remember that the NDP promised to balance the budget. The Liberals did not.

They said the economy needed the boost of public investment.

Who looks like they were on the right side of that argument now?

On the other hand, the new-look progressive Trudeau Liberals are still more pro-trade than the NDP.

And they are less willing than their third-party colleagues to engage in policies that redress inequality.

The not-entirely-as-advertised middle-class tax cut illustrates that latter point, as does the flat-out refusal to even marginally boost the record low corporate tax rate, or to set any federal minimum wage.

And yet, in this still young Parliament, the Liberals and New Democrats look more often like neighbours or even partners than adversaries.

Justice minister took sting out of NDP thrust

The NDP will continue to hammer the Liberals on their many promises and commitments.

But that hammering looks a bit like flailing when the Liberals, in essence, agree with their New Democrat questioners, as Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould did on the Blackstock decision.

Mulcair and other NDPers kept insisting that the government must not drag out the process by appealing the Human Rights Tribunal's ruling.

Wilson-Raybould did caution the House that the judgment is very long. The government must do its due its diligence and study it, she said.

Her public service counsellors would have strongly advised her to say that.

But then she added -- twice -- "there will likely not be any reason why we would seek judicial review of this decision."

That was as far as any minister could go on day one, and way further than her Conservative predecessor would have gone.

On that same subject, the NDP's Charlie Angus allowed the Liberals to lay out some markers for the public service, especially its senior ranks, some of whom may have imbibed a bit too much of the Harper government Kool-Aid for their own good.

After speaking eloquently about the harm caused by decades of underfunding of First Nations child welfare, Angus addressed his question to the President of the Treasury Board, the cabinet's point person on the public service.

He asked: "What is his plan to weed out the systemic negligence that runs through all the key departments of the federal government? What is his plan for action?"

The Treasury Board Minister did not answer.

Instead, the new Indigenous affairs minister, Carolyn Bennett, took the question

She started by thanking Angus for his question, and she applauded the northern Ontario MP's activism on First Nations issues.

She then reminded the House -- and the entire government --  that "every member of this government and every minister has in their mandate letters the relationship with First Nations, Inuit, and Métis people as a very serious issue."

An all-of-government approach

Back in 2011, in response to one of a series of devastating critiques of the government's management of First Nations services from the Auditor General (AG), the deputy minister of Aboriginal affairs told a parliamentary committee that the only way to effectively address the AG's concerns would be to adopt an "all-of-government" approach to Aboriginal affairs.

At that time, just after the re-election of the Harper Conservatives, the deputy minister had to ruefully admit that he did not expect the rest of government to heed his call.

Well, that same senior bureaucrat now has the chance to make it happen.

He is Michael Wernick, the newly appointed Clerk of the Privy Council, in effect the chief operating officer of the government.

Wernick earned himself a bit of bad press as a result of some exaggerated, ill-considered remarks he made a while ago about peaceful student demonstrators.

Plus, writing on the Aboriginal Peoples' Television Network website, Russell Diabo argues that Wernick might have been a somewhat too enthusiastic implementer of Harper's negative and confrontational approach to First Nations. 

Diabo writes that Wernick supported Harper's Prime Minister's Office (PMO) in keeping a lid on Aboriginal files after the 2006 election, when the Harper government rejected the Liberal's 2005 Kelowna Accord and Aboriginal peoples were downgraded as a federal priority. On the Harper government's orders, Diabo says, Wernick and the department he led instituted funding cuts and caps to First Nation programs and organizations.

More disturbing, Diabo claims Wernick went along with Harper's PMO by setting up Aboriginal affairs "Hot Spot" reporting to spy on First Nations. The politicians wanted the bureaucrats to identify the leaders and outside supporters of occupations and protests, especially while the Idle No More movement was at its height.

As well, Diabo says Wernick supported the PMO by undermining the Specific Claims process. His department made it harder to research and submit those locally focused land and rights' claims.

And finally, Diabo alleges the then deputy minister of Aboriginal affairs' staff led the federal retaliation against Cindy Blackstock by spying on her. After Blackstock complained about the spying, Diabo claims Wernick's department tried to cover up the operation.

It is all serious stuff, but when you're a civil servant you either do the elected government of the day's bidding or you resign.

Some chose the latter course, notably the head of Statistics Canada, who quit when the Conservatives killed the long-form census.

Others left more quietly when they could not stomach the Harper agenda.

Like many others, Wernick stayed and obediently carried out his political masters' orders -- maybe even too obediently. 

Nonetheless, he could now more than redeem himself if he succeeded in implementing the all-of-government approach he promoted when he was the senior bureaucrat responsible for Canada's relationship with hundreds of thousands of Indigenous people. 


Photo: flickr/ Graham Perry

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