I don’t remember ever having fallen asleep twice in response to a political speech, but I managed it yesterday when Stephen Harper addressed the Summit, as it was called, between the First Nations and the government. While watching it on TV I nodded off during Harper’s initial presentation; I was happy when CPAC repeated the speeches later in the day, and listened attentively enough when Harper began to speak, but what do you know, I fell asleep again before he finished.
My friends often tell me I am one of those people for whom the glass is half empty, as distinct from those optimists for whom the glass is always half full. But frankly, as I heard this improbable meeting droning on, I have to confess my glass was not just half empty: it was flat out empty. For National Chief Shawn Atleo, in contrast, who had organized this meeting, the glass was positively overflowing, with optimism. Oh, well, I can hardly blame him, for having got Harper and his whole Cabinet to visit him and his native chiefs, Atleo had to get something out of it, and one could tell from Harper’s anodyne presentation that nothing much was forthcoming, if anything.
Atleo said the First Nations were making a solemn commitment to a new beginning in their relationship with Canada and the Crown, and added, “and we must not fail.” The first thing was to repair the trust between the two sides, that has been broken, and this meeting was the beginning of that long journey.
Okay, no one could argue with that, I guess. Atleo, giving a little historical background, said the Indian Act in 1876 was “built on a disgraceful premise of our inferiority.” Numerous signposts had since been erected testifying to the fact that the Act had “failed our people”, including the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, whose sensible recommendations, arising from their thorough investigation of the actual situation, have been totally ignored for 16 years by succeeding governments.
Just how Atleo can ever have hoped for a new beginning from Harper and his gang of right-wing ideologues is a mystery to me. Harper’s main adviser on Aboriginal questions has been Tom Flanagan, a Calgary professor, and Goldwater Republican who has written two books recommending a policy of assimilation, and its inevitable privatization of the collective indigenous culture, without having ever been in an Aboriginal community in Canada. Behind him is a whole range of academics and rightwing journalists who, having given some attention to the subject, have unanimously declared discovery of a path that, to them, is devastatingly novel, that is, assimilation, a remedy that they show no signs of recognizing is the very policy that has landed the Aboriginal people in their present parlous state.
Anyway, back to the meeting. Elaborate tributes had to be paid to Harper, as Prime Minister, ignoring the fact that the three ministers who spoke, John Duncan, Indian Affairs, Leona Agglukkaq, Health, and Peter Penashue, Intergovernmental affairs, had nothing to say except to recite the government’s noble works and good intentions in this field. Sixty-five land claims agreements signed in the last six years, they said, so much money spent on this and that. Of course no one mentioned that some 800 land claims are still dragging their asses through the system, that while the urgent demand for houses on Aboriginal communities numbers 45,000 --- urgent demand! --- but last year some 1400 were built. Inconvenient stuff, these facts.
Jody Wilson-Rayboult, AFN regional chief for BC, gave a nod to the potential for development of Aboriginal businesses, but said that to release those energies would require something more than the “impoverished concept of government” that flows from the Indian Act. This had led to the government’s idea that handing over Indian Affairs programmes to the Indian bands to administer was equivalent to self-government. But she said, no, sir. This was just the latest in a history of colonial attitudes, which must end. Speaking directly to Harper, she said, “You cannot legislate self-gvernment for us.”
Ovide Mercredi, former national chief (and one whose independent thinking was not to the government’s liking) said his purpose at this meeting was to speak for the Treaties. If the Treaties were properly understood, they could become the powerful force for a renewal of First Nations life in Canada. He quoted an elder who, when asked what he thought of how things were going, said, “Act Indian, not Indian Act.” (This was the second remarkable quote from an elder we had heard: Atleo had recalled how his grandmother had seized his hand when she heard Harper’s apology for the horrors of the residential school system, and said, “Grandson, they are beginning to see us.”)
Ovide quoted the well-known judgment of Lord Denning in a case brought by some First Nations people in a desperate attempt to stop repatriation of the constitution in 1982, which was proposed without any mention of Aboriginal rights or titles. Denning said he could see no reason why the First Nations should distrust the government of Canada, but if any such thing were to occur, they should know that their rights and freedoms were guaranteed by the Crown, and no Parliament would be able to lessen the worth of these guarantees, which would be honoured by the Crown in right of Canada “as long as the sun shines and the rivers flow, and this promise should never be broken.”
Ovide was the only speaker who brought his audience to its feet in spontaneous applause: he added that, if necessary, “we” would go to Britain again. “That is not a threat,” he said, “but a statement of our commitment to defend our rights and titles.”
Matthew Coon Come, another former national chief who is now Grand Chief of the Cree Grand Council of Quebec, told delegates that his group had found it advantageous to enter into alliance with the province of Quebec, and said the province’s Plan Nord, for development of the lands that once had been recognized as Cree homeland, provided a superb opportunity for the Crees to win contracts and develop the skills needed for them to take part in the exciting work ahead. Economic progress, which the Crees were experiencing, and governance,were two sides of the same coin, he said. Reform in the economic field cannot succeed unless there is reform in the field of governance.
The meeting then adjourned, for reasons unexplained, into private session, where various workshops were undertaken, on which the most perfunctory reports were delivered at the closing ceremony four hours later.
Later still, at a press conference, some journalists were able to ask a few probing questions of the participants: the most interesting of these came when Minister Duncan said that in the workshops and in their previous legislation, they had established shared priorities with the AFN. “We have accomplished what we set out to do,” he said. “We have re-established our relationship.” He posited the First Nations Land Management scheme as a signpost leading to a better future, handing over to First Nations that asked for it control of their lands, and set up a system for “sharing the wealth” from heir lands. This, he said, was already accepted by 55 First Nations, and it effectively took them outside one-quarter of the provisions of the Indian Act.
Under questioning, as to the meaning of “sharing the wealth”, did this mean they would have royalties, or simply jobs? Duncan said their primary focus was on job training, and as the questioner remarked that people were asking how there could be a profitable diamond mine alongside the social disaster of Attawapiskat, Dunan was called away by his officials, and drifted off.
When Atleo was asked the same question, he said the relationship with the federal government should be based on “partnership, sharing and trust. It means getting away from the Indian Act, and we can see that Canada is willing to work with us in this new relationship.” A questioner asked how he could be so positive about this new relationship when, out of the other side of its mouth, as it were, the federal government was vigorously defending more than 100 court cases taken to challenge their controls of Indian life; he had to admit this was an anomaly, but one that they would have to work on to improve.
It was notable that Prime Minister Harper did not speak at the final session, although he was there to mop up the many accolades delivered in his direction by other speakers. And as far as I could tell, this “new relationshop”, at least in the minds of the government, is simply the same old relationship, warmed over, and with a few steps towards privatization that remind one strangely of the “termination policies” once tried to such devastating effect in the United States.
Still, one can’t blame Atleo for trying, I guess.