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Dear Ryan: The importance of showing up

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Open Letter to Ryan Leef #28

Dear Ryan,

Assembly of First Nations (AFN) held the 34th Annual General Assembly in Whitehorse this month. The Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development did not bother to attend. The former Minister, Jim Prentice, showed up to pontificate at the Assembly on behalf of business interests. But many politicians, of all stripes, attended with the intention of listening. This included your counterpart from Northwest Territories, Dennis Bevington, and former Member of Parliament for Yukon, Larry Bagnell. 

Ryan, I was surprised that you only attended the opening ceremony and left without saying a word. Your run to raise money for diabetes is a laudable pursuit to undertake during your free time. But your supporters know that it is not a part of your job as the Member of Parliament for Yukon. They would have understood if you had taken a break from the marathon in order to attend the 34th Assembly. It is your job to participate in important events like this.

Coinciding with the AFN was the horrifying news of experiments carried out on aboriginal children in the 1940s and '50s. Children were deliberately starved in order to study the effects of malnutrition. 

Once my father, a construction supervisor for the Department of Indian Affairs, discovered that a principal at a residential school in Kenora was underfeeding the children. It was likely that this man was pocketing money from his food allowance rather than conducting a science experiment. Regardless, Dad re-set the industrial bread slicing machine, initially set to cut the thinnest slices possible, to the largest slices. He then welded it permanently into that position. 

Henry Leon, a construction carpenter by trade, worked for the Department of Indian affairs in the 1960s. He was hired to organize and oversee the construction of day schools on all of the reservations in Northern Ontario. He was to complete this task as quickly as humanly possible. Clearly, residential school abuse was known about even then and the government of the time was hoping to quietly rectify this situation. 

My father had a difficult time with his job. He was appalled by what he saw on reservations and the way the cards were stacked against First Nations people. Dad was succinct: “The Indians are being shafted.”

Dad couldn’t go public with the abuses he witnessed because of the Officials Secrets Act. But he worked subversively to make things better where he could. And if he couldn’t speak publicly about injustices, he didn’t have had any qualms about bringing them up with his colleagues and superiors. 

As a child from a single-parent family growing up in the Depression, my father was hyper-sensitive to the suffering of children. In his free time, he visited sick kids in hospitals when they were hundreds of miles from their families. When First Nations youth from remote reserves arrived in Thunder Bay to go to high school in the fall, those whose job it was to welcome the children at the airport and drive them to their billets frequently couldn’t be bothered. Dad stepped in to do this task too, in his free time. (This was something I discovered from other people because he didn’t brag about it. He did boast about the bread-cutting machine though.) 

My father was well known as a hard worker and a person who went beyond his job description when the need arose. He wasn’t as slavishly loyal to his superiors as they thought he should be. But he was one hundred per cent committed to building the best schools he could.

Last week, an e-mail sent by Erica Furtado, an executive with issues management in the Prime Minister’s Office, to the new Cabinet Ministers was leaked to the press. The subject line was titled, “Transition Binder Check List.” And what a list! Number 5 is, “What to avoid: pet bureaucratic projects.” Number 6 is, “Who to avoid: bureaucrats that can’t take no (or yes) for an answer.” Number 9 is, “Who to engage or avoid: friend and enemy stakeholders.”

My father would definitely be considered a public servant with “pet projects,” a person who was non-compliant and an “enemy” by the current regime in Ottawa.   

As the Prime Minister’s inner circle jackboot their way around Ottawa, Conservative politicians refuse to consult with or truly respect First Nations. This is a big mistake. 

Just how many enemies can the Conservative Government afford to make?

May you walk on the high road.

Respectfully yours,

Linda Leon

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