Elizabeth May Right on Point

I generally like what Elizabeth May has to say on issues. This article is no exception.

The Attawapiskat audit: Distracting us from a legacy of failure

The tensions surrounding First Nations and the federal government are, perhaps, at an all-time high.
I had hoped the Prime Minister’s decision to meet with First Nations leadership this Friday was a hopeful sign of a new beginning in building nation to nation respectful relationships. Perhaps it could finally be the beginning of implementing the 1996 Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples.
Unfortunately, there is an ugly tone in the air as Conservative spokespeople, such as Senator Patrick Brazeau, line up in the media to take pot shots at Chief Theresa Spence. Although the Attawapiskat audit covers 2005-2011, Theresa Spence was only elected chief in 2010.
The release of the audit of Attawapiskat band finances is heralded by some as evidence of – what exactly? – that the housing crisis in First Nations communities is the fault of their leadership? The audit is not evidence of fraud, but shows an unacceptable level of expenditures for which proper documentation was not provided. It does not suggest the money was spent improperly. We simply do not know. Finger pointing and attacks will not help build a relationship based on respect for treaty and inherent indigenous rights.
So let’s just step back for a moment and admit what everyone knows. Millions of dollars in federal funding for indigenous peoples goes to non-indigenous consultants and lawyers and the bureaucracy supposedly at the service of First Nations communities. Many First Nations communities could benefit from better book keeping and financial controls, but so too could the federal government as the Auditor General has frequently reported. There is a reason that former Auditor General Sheila Fraser dedicated so much of her final report to the unacceptable multiple failures of the federal government in delivering on goals in meeting minimum obligations to First Nations, Metis and Inuit peoples. In 2005 and again in 2011, the Auditor General set out a litany of abuse. In a report prepared by Sheila Fraser and released by her successor, she noted, “I am profoundly disappointed to note … that despite federal action in response to our recommendations over the years, a disproportionate number of First Nations people still lack the most basic services that other Canadians take for granted.” She did not point fingers at the individual communities, but rather at the Department of Aboriginal Affairs for relying on vague policy rather than the kind of clear legislation found at the provincial level to meet non-indigenous needs for health, housing, water and education.
So, just as the Idle No More movement was not an off-shoot of Chief Spence’s hunger strike, neither is the audit of Attawapiskat’s finances a relevant response to the litany of undeniable and shameful neglect of the treaty obligations of the nation of Canada to the people on whose land we live and whose resources make us wealthy.
Numerous Supreme Court decisions make it clear that the federal government, as well as private sector corporations with an eye of First Nations’ lands and resources, have a duty to consult. Yet, numerous legislative changes made by the Harper Conservatives over the last year had no advance consultation, despite significant impact on First Nations. Both Omnibus bills, C-38 and C-45, had significant impacts on First Nations, without consultation. The Canada-China Investment Treaty, signed by the Prime Minister in early September and not yet ratified, could also have huge impacts on First Nations, yet there was no consultation. From neglect, we seem to have moved seamlessly to an assault on First Nations, as though we could erase Constitutionally-enshrined rights should they stand in the way of mines, dams and pipelines. The issue of non-consultation should be addressed immediately.
The abandonment of the 2005 Kelowna Accord was the beginning of numerous blows, including cutting the following programmes aimed at redressing the scandalous disparity in health outcomes between indigenous and non-indigenous Canadians: health awareness programmes curbing tobacco addiction, Aboriginal Diabetes Initiative, the Aboriginal Health Human Resources Initiative, the Aboriginal Youth Suicide Prevention Strategy, the Aboriginal Health Transition Fund, the Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder Program, the Maternal and Child Health Program, and the Blood Borne Diseases and Sexually Transmitted Infections/HIV/AIDS Program. As well, institutions to assist in understanding the disparities, such as the National Aboriginal Health Organization (NAHO) and First Nations Statistical Institute (FNSI), have been axed. As well, the high cost of food and fuel in the North is a serious problem and remains unaddressed.
Despite all the evidence, we owe it to the embryonic potential of Idle No More to hope that all leaders present will rise to a new level of decency and respect – towards each other and towards the peoples and lands they represent. As the first indigenous leader of Bolivia has done, could we not begin to discuss the constitutional protection of nature itself? Could we not start designing a path to replace the Indian Act, establish a set of meaningful goals to ensure that all children on this piece of Turtle Island, indigenous and non-indigenous, have equal access to proper education, safe drinking water, decent health care and safe housing? Could we not live up to our promises of treaties past and lay the groundwork to a future premised on the respectful sharing of this land? I believe we can. In fact, we must.
Elizabeth May is the Member of Parliament for Saanich-Gulf Islands and Leader of the Green Party of Canada.


Hunger Strikes, Idle No More, First nations Leadership and Stephen Harper

Who hasn't been watching the growing Idle No More movement and the stand-off between Chief Spence, now in the twenty some day of her hunger strike and the bully who calls himself our Prime Minister.

There is some very interesting stuff unfolding there. It could be the beginning of significant change in the way First Nations deal with government and vice versa.

On the other hand, after almost letting this issue get away from him, our illustrious PM just may have found a way to get things back, right where he wants them.

The really interesting thing is the First Nations' complicity in helping that happen.

First let's take a look at Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence and Saskatchewan's Emil Bell who joined her in a hunger strike to try and force Stephen Harper to take First nations' issues seriously. 

A year ago Canadians, joined by people around the world were shocked by conditions on Chief Spence's reserve. People were in danger of freezing to death in their inadequate housing, the school was a delapitated shack and the community was rife with addiction. The government's first step was to blame the community leadership but eventually they were embarrassed into taking action.

A year later, seeing little change in her community Chief Spence took the drasitc action of embarking on a hunger strike. Hunger strikes are a great was to get attention to your cause, particularly if they last a while. After all, no group likes a death watch like the National media.

The problem with them is, unless you are prepared to go all the way, they lose their impact.

The First Nations' leadership's response to the hunger strike was telling. If they really were the group of activists they claim to be, scores of first Nations' leaders would have joined Spence by taking actions of their own. In their own communities and across the country. As far as I could see, they did bugger all.

Chief Spence first demanded a talk with Stephen Harper and the Governor General, refusing to talk to the Aboriginal Affairs Minister. A good move in some ways since the PM is a micro-manager and talking to the minions is a waste of time. 

On the other hand Harper is as stubborn as they come.

Then Spence eventually softened her stand. She said it was ok if Harper at the very least set up a meaningful discussion. If I recall she wanted a couple of weeks of dialogue. We all knew that wasn't going to happen.

Meanwhile, the Idle No More movement has been growing and gaining momentum across Canada and internationally. Rail lines have been blocked, traffic slowed on highways and stopped on bridges and flash mobs have popped up in every major city in the country.

First Nations people and supporter were standing up in significant numbers demanding to be heard for the first time in years. A spontaneous non-hierarchical movement Idle No More was catching everyone's attention.

That was a problem for Harper and for the First Nation's Leadership. The chiefs, comfortable in their role around the big table began to see their authority being usurped by a rag tag group of grassroots protesters with a large and complex agenda and the PM who knew full well that it is much easier to bamboozle a group of leaders with low expectations, knew that finally something had to be done.

Harper agreed to a meeting.

The media characterize it as a win for Chief Spence. I don't agree. Harper won this round.

I simply cannot believe that anyone has any real expectations that any significant results will come from the Harper meeting. Knowing his past performance, the chiefs with be lucky to get two hours of face time with the PM.

Our Prime Minister is the king of empty promises.

No one should forget Stephen Harper's great "apology" to our First Nations for their treatment in the residential schools system. He said in part:

The government recognizes that the absence of an apology has been an impediment to healing and reconciliation. Therefore, on behalf of the Government of Canada and all Canadians, I stand before you, in this Chamber so central to our life as a country, to apologize to Aboriginal peoples for Canada's role in the Indian Residential Schools system.

He went on to say:

A cornerstone of the Settlement Agreement is the Indian Residential Schools Truth and Reconciliation Commission. This Commission presents a unique opportunity to educate all Canadians on the Indian Residential Schools system. It will be a positive step in forging a new relationship between Aboriginal peoples and other Canadians, a relationship based on the knowledge of our shared history, a respect for each other and a desire to move forward together with a renewed understanding that strong families, strong communities and vibrant cultures and traditions will contribute to a stronger Canada for all of us.

The media fawned all over the PM for his courage. First Nations leaders praised his leadership and humanity.

The reality of his promise rings hollow a few years later as his government has refused to provide needed documentation to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to complete their task.The group has recently had to go to court in an effort to get the Harper government to comply with their obligations.

From my perspective the "apology" was little more that a deflection from Harper's scrapping of the Kelowna Accord crafted by former PM Paul Martin.

The accord was a result of 18 months of round table discussions between the government and First Nations leaders. The chiefs saw the accord as a step major forward. It was the result of a process of cooperation and consultation that brought all parties to the table.

The proposed education investment was to ensure that the high school graduation rate of aboriginal Canadians matched the rest of the population. The money was also aimed at cutting in half the gap in rates of post-secondary graduations.

In the area of health, targets were established to reduce infant mortality, youth suicide, childhood obesity and diabetes by 20 per cent in five years, and 50 per cent in 10 years. They also promised to double the number of health professionals in 10 years.

The plan included

  • $1.8 billion for education, to create school systems, train more aboriginal teachers and identify children with special needs. 
  • $1.6 billion for housing, including $400 million to address the need for clean water in many remote communities. 
  • $1.3 billion for health services. 
  • $200 million for economic development.

Harper scrapped the deal. His Conservative government has not engaged in consultations with First Nations in any meaningful way since.

So what should we expect.

  • The chiefs and Harper will have a little face time. 
  • Chief Spence will go back to her impoverished community. 
  • Idle no More will peter out. 
  • Harper will continue to ignore his responsibilities to the First Nations. 

Back to the status quo. What more could Harper want.

I hope I am wrong