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On Friday January 11 there was a three hour “Government-First Nations” meeting in the impenetrable Langevin Building that houses the Prime Minister’s inner sanctum and a day of Aboriginal protests across the country
At the end of it all, Canada’s First Nations people remain largely poor and marginalized.
As for the majority “white” Canadians — they remain, at best, uneasy and ambivalent about Aboriginal demands, and, for the most part, blithely ignorant of the history and facts of their First Nations fellow citizens.
The truth of the matter is that most good, hardworking, middle-class, home-owning and tax-paying Canadians have never spent even a single day in a First Nations community.
They have no Aboriginal friends.
They have never read a single paragraph of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, nor any other foundational document on Canada’s First Nations.
They could not tell you, even in the most general terms, what the landmark and historic Delgamuukw or Morrow or Malouf court decisions said and what they mean.
Nor have they paid any heed to the many probing and disturbing reports on First Nations services Sheila Fraser issued during her tenure as Canada’s Auditor General.
Those reports utterly condemn the Canadian government’s handling of service delivery and governance in First Nations communities. They show, unambiguously, how blame for the sort of accounting problems we see in Attawapiskat can be laid at the feet of the dysfunctional system the federal government imposes on First Nations bands.
That lack of knowledge and familiarity with First Nations explains why so many decent, nice and well-meaning Canadians are easily swayed by the simplistic, uninformed and — frankly — fatuous views of the likes of the Globe and Mail’s Jeffrey Simpson and the National Post’s Christie Blatchford.
And it is why so many Canadians, who might be inclined to feel a certain intuitive sympathy (if not empathy) for First Nations people, are ready to dismiss Chief Theresa Spence as just another “corrupt local politician.”
Some of those good, well-meaning people even give credibility to the nasty notion out there that Spence has not really been on a hunger strike, merely some kind of “cleansing diet.”
Prime Minister will be mindful of public opinion
The views and sentiments of — as Preston Manning used to call them — “rank-and-file Canadians” are important in this moment of great hope and perhaps even greater danger for Canada’s First Nations.
If Prime Minister Harper is to be moved at all in the direction of justice and equity for First Nations peoples it will only be because he believes there is significant popular support for those goals.
A lot of mainstream commentators argue that the weakened position of the “moderate and reasonable” Assembly of First Nations (AFN) National Chief Shawn Atleo will have a negative impact on “mainstream white society” support for Aboriginal Canada.
CTV’s Don Martin proclaims that First Nations leadership is being hijacked by dangerous and unrealistic radicals — people, he says, who will accept no measure of incremental progress, who cannot take yes for an answer.
If those “radicals” engage in promised blockades and other direct actions there will be a heavy price to pay, the CTV broadcaster warns.
Who are the ones doing ‘dangerous, radical’ things?
It is worth remembering, however, that the catalyst for the current round of Aboriginal militancy did not emerge out of any set of “radical” First Nations’ demands.
The catalyst was the Harper government’s own radical attacks on the environment and First Nations’ rights in the two budget omnibus Bills, C-38 and C-45.
Even former Progressive Conservative ministers expressed outrage over Harper’s stealth gutting of the Fisheries Act in Bill C-38. The new weakened fisheries measures provide for the protection only of so-called “economically important” species and open the door to massive fish habitat destruction.
Very few independent observers can justify — or even explain — the scrapping of the venerable Navigable Waters Act, buried in the fine print of Bill C-45. Most rivers and lakes in First Nations country (and elsewhere) now lack basic protection from roads, shoreline alteration, bridges and dams, protection they had for more than a century.
Virtually eliminating the federal role in environmental review of mega-projects, as a result of a package of measures sifted into C-38, makes little sense to anyone who has followed the history of such projects in Canada.
The federal environmental review system was born, in part, out of the Trudeau government’s 1970s Berger Inquiry into the proposed Mackenzie Valley pipeline. That inquiry gave a voice, almost for the first time, to the Dene and Inuit communities of the North. The moratorium on pipelines Berger recommended allowed the Northern First Nations communities to pursue development at their own pace and on their own terms.
And, as Rodgers and Hammerstein might have put it, those are just a few of the radical things the Harper government wrought — stealthily and with scant opportunity for study or debate — in its two omnibus bills.
Idle No More born of a need to defend the environment
Unlike the Harper government, Idle No More is not radical.
It is, in fact, profoundly realistic and even conservative, in the true sense of that word.
The name of the movement explains its goal.
We will be “idle no more” in the face of the Harper government’s aggressive and single minded agenda, the movement says.
First Nations communities — as poor, remote and under-serviced as they are — would be the most immediately and severely affected by the legislative changes in C-45 and C-38. And so, the people of those communities, especially the women and youth, have decided they must take a stand.
Interestingly, at the conclusion of Friday’s Government-First Nations meeting, Atleo and Quebec Cree Grand Chief Matthew Coon-Come both said they thought they heard the Prime Minister say he might consider pulling back on some of the two omnibus bills’ more outrageous measures.
Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan threw cold water on those pious hopes.
Government not budging on legislation already passed
When asked if the Government offered to amend C-38 and C-45 he said:
“There was (sic) discussions around legislation. Our legislation indeed respects Section 35. That’s a constitutional obligation that we have. And so we’re proceeding in that way with all of our legislation.”
Duncan has an unfortunate tendency to halting circumlocution, so just to make sure they got the message, reporters asked what he meant by that statement.
The Aboriginal Affairs Minister then made it quite clear that the Government has no intention of changing any of the omnibus bills’ radical measures.
“We’re quite, we’re quite comfortable that we have met our constitutional obligations with those bills,” he said, “and we believe there’s every reason to proceed.”
Whatever the Chiefs who participated in the meeting might say, Duncan’s words will not give much comfort to First Nations people who fear that mining, pipeline and oil companies now have a green light to move into their territories at full speed.
And the companies can do that with little advance consultation — and without any commitment for revenue-sharing agreements with First Nations.
Do the provinces really own all the natural resources?
The government and AFN leaders did discuss the matter of revenue-sharing on Friday. But the federal position is simply that natural resources belong to the provinces, so it is really up to them.
The Harper government could, of course, exert influence over the provinces, and some provincial governments have even expressed a willingness to at least discuss resource revenue-sharing with First Nations.
There was a small glimmer of hope coming out of Friday’s meeting that the federal government might be ready to get its toes wet on the key issue of resource revenues.
Atleo and Coon Come both said they detected some positive reaction to Saskatchewan Chief Perry Bellegarde’s idea of a federally-led process on natural resource development — a process that would include First Nations at the table, as partners, in some sense or other, not yet clear.
Coon Come even said that it was a pity Bellegarde had boycotted the meeting and wasn’t there to push his own idea.
Comprehensive claims process
One of the biggest achievements of Friday’s Langevin meeting, if there were any achievements, seems to have been a federal commitment to what both sides call a “high-level process” on the settlement of “comprehensive” land-claims.
Those are the over-arching, major settlements that touch on land, water, resource revenues, governance and self-government.
The Nisga’a and James Bay Agreements are two very different examples of comprehensive land claim agreements.
Both, many First Nations people will tell you, are deeply flawed; but there are lots of lessons to be learned from both.
Schooling on First Nations reserves
The other major commitment, essentially a repeat of a commitment from the last Crown-First Nations encounter, concerns education. Atleo and Harper agree that it is crucially important to achieve much better outcomes in the education of First Nations youth.
The federal government has, in hand, a report it commissioned on education that, if not a perfect blueprint, could at least provide a useful starting point.
One of the report’s suggestions is to establish something that might resemble a Canada-wide First Nations educational authority, separate from the paternalistic Aboriginal Affairs bureaucracy.
Such an entity might not sit well with many bands or band councils, fearful of losing local autonomy.
But if the government wishes to heed the repeated injunctions of the Auditor General, it has to get past the absurd contribution agreement system for funding First Nations services, including — and perhaps, especially — education.
A new spirit of dialogue?
All of this might become clearer in the weeks and months to come.
Beyond specific commitments — difficult to nail down in a single three-hour meeting, Coon Come says — the AFN leaders are especially encouraged by something more ephemeral: the Prime Minister’s commitment to ongoing “dialogue”.
They say discussions between the Government and First Nations from now on will be regular and practically-focused. They will not be the sporadic, theatrical set-pieces we’ve had up to now.
We’ll see how that works out, in real life terms.
As for Chief Spence — as of late Friday evening she had taken part in the Chiefs’ encounter with the Governor General and had even reported back to her people on that meeting (something Atleo did not do at the end of his meeting with the Prime Minister late Friday afternoon, for some inexplicable reason).
Now, in the spirit of reconciliation, it might be a good thing if the Prime Minister would publicly lift the cloud of suspicion over Chief Spence’s head.
He could do that by saying clearly that the Attawapiskat Chief is not accused of any wrong-doing, and that, as the Auditor General clearly explained, the kind of accounting problems her band has experienced are almost the inevitable result of a badly flawed funding system — a system the government has solemnly promised to change on more than one occasion.