Despite its flaws, Robin Sears’ recent article in Policy magazine, “The AFN and the PM: Retiring the Missionaries,” provides keen insight into several aspects of the relationship between the Harper government, the federal bureaucracy, and the Assembly of First Nations.

As fascinating for what it gets wrong as what it gets right, those interested in Indigenous policy benefit from Mr. Sears’ astute observations on several points, but are misled by the unstated and mistaken assumption underlying his argument.

 At the outset, he rightly notes that the ongoing failure of Canada’s Indigenous policy is the result of the continuing pursuit of a doomed approach. 

His criticism of the reward and punishment game is likewise correct, and the wastefulness of the ongoing litigation battle, in money, time and trust, can never be emphasized enough.

Sears is spot-on in noting that the thousands of reports filed by bureaucrats and consultants sent by Ottawa to make studies of First Nations reserves consistently blame band management rather than departmental policy, meaning that failed policies are never corrected.

And his nod toward successful agreements between the Cree and Quebec is constructive.

Most importantly, the article highlights the significance of the next few months to the aspirations of both National Chief Shawn A-in-chut Atleo and Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the inherent risks in failing to achieve “real change.”

The observation that the National Chief “has gambled his reputation and his future” on making concrete progress warrants attention given that failure to make progress through quiet diplomacy may lead to the selection of more confrontational leadership in 2015. This has been a pattern throughout the AFN’s forty-year history.

With regard to the Prime Minister, Sears says that “an important part of his legacy — new resource development successes and his Western Canadian political fortress — are hostage to making progress on the First Nations file,” and, “Failure to deliver could mean violence for which he will pay the political price.” Regular readers of this blog will find these sentiments familiar. They are worth repeating.

Unfortunately, these cogent remarks fall victim to the fatal flaw in Mr. Sears’ thesis.

The thrust of the article is that the bureaucracy, the consultants and the lawyers — the missionaries of the article’s title — are to blame for a situation that National Chief Atleo and Prime Minister Harper are jointly trying to address, if only they could get others to follow through. 

And so, Mr. Sears identifies the assignment of the Prime Minister’s Chief of Staff and the Clerk of the Privy Council to the file as evidence of the seriousness with which the issues are now being treated. He also praises the commitment of Minister Valcourt for his professed determination to carry out the Prime Minister’s vision.

Certainly there is no need to defend the faceless bureaucrats, consultants and lawyers. But their role is as it always has been, to implement policy not to set it. 

Yes, they continue to carry out a failed policy and will continue to fail at making change. This is not because they don’t do their jobs well enough, not because Ministers have varied in their enthusiasm for it, nor because Prime Ministers have not given it priority.

The policy fails because it is the wrong policy. 

Interestingly, the article notes the Conservative legislative agenda appears designed to rouse Indigenous opposition, “For reasons that are hard to understand strategically.” Mr. Sears’ theorizes that it may be a sop to the base or designed to achieve a stronger negotiating position.

But the strategy is only difficult to comprehend if one chooses to deny its objective. 

It should be patently obvious to any observer that Mr. Harper’s policy is exactly the same policy that the bureaucratic missionaries have been carrying out since the latter half of the 19th century.  It is the policy of assimilation. 

Mr. Harper’s commitment to it is demonstrated in his choice of a legislative suite designed to diminish First Nations governments and retrench progress toward self-government. It is plain to see in the continued reduction of funding for services such as education, health care, housing, water and band operations. It is illuminated by attacks on the integrity and competence of First Nations leaders, by the choice to ignore the views of the grassroots and the failure to reach out to those who seek a nation-to-nation relationship, as was promised in the treaties.

This has been the failure of Canada’s Indigenous policy for 150 years.  And it will be the continuing failure of Canada if those who profess to comment on Indigenous policy fail to name, examine and refute it.


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