Changes in the Ottawa-First Nations relationship must go both ways

NationalPost.com – Full Comment – Changes in the Ottawa-First Nations relationship must go both ways
Posted: July 20, 2009.   John Ivison

Members of Parliament demand respect because they have been chosen by “the people” — a contention that often does not stand up to scrutiny. The vast majority represent safe seats and, in reality, they were elected by their riding associations — typically, 100 or so party activists. But at least voters get the chance in a general election to have the final say. This is not the case in tomorrow’s election to replace Phil Fontaine as National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) — a process that will nominally be decided by 633 chiefs, without any consultation with the grassroots.

The winner requires the support of 60% of the 400 or so chiefs who are likely to make the trip to Calgary. One native politician from Manitoba said he was surprised at the lack of interest on the ground. “I think there are a number of chiefs who are so disillusioned that they won’t even go to Calgary,” he said.

Despite concerns about the legitimacy of a national leader who may end up being elected to represent 750,000 aboriginal Canadians by fewer than 300 people, the role of National Chief is likely to become increasingly important to all Canadians. The AFN is the conduit for relations between the federal government and Canada’s First Nations at a time when they are set to play an ever more prominent role in the national debate, on files ranging from resource extraction to labour market supply.

There are five candidates for the job: Shawn Atleo, John Beaucage, Perry Bellegarde, Terry Nelson and Bill Wilson. Mr. Atleo, a regional chief of the AFN in British Columbia, and Mr. Beaucage, Grand Chief of the 42-nation Union of Ontario Indians, are ranked as front-runners by most observers, with Mr. Bellegarde, a former grand chief of the Federation of Saskatchewan Indians, given an outside chance. Mr. Wilson, a veteran B.C. native politician who negotiated with Brian Mulroney and Bill Vander Zalm in the 1980s, is a late entrant to the race and considered a long shot who may take some votes from Mr. Atleo.

The Conservative government has had a difficult relationship with the AFN. It has cut the AFN’s core funding from $10-million when it came into office to $7-million this year, with a projection that more will be cut in the next two years. “Whenever the AFN has criticized the government, it has seen its funding cut,” said one insider. “It’s punitive politics.”

The government has viewed the AFN as an obstacle to its goal of bringing structural reform to reserves. For its part, the AFN was much more in tune with the former Liberal government of Paul Martin, whose Kelowna Accord handed over $5-billion for social programs with no pre-conditions. But the government knows that it cannot ignore the AFN entirely and sources suggest that Chuck Strahl, the Indian Affairs Minister, thinks he can do business with both Mr. Beaucage and Mr. Atleo.
Both front-runners are aware of the difficulties of taking potshots at a government that is also their source of funding. Both talk in conciliatory tones about the need for dialogue to address what Mr. Atleo calls Canada’s No. 1 social-justice issue.

Both are in the mould of native leaders like Mr. Fontaine, rather than more hardline politicians like former national chief Matthew Coon Come. Both call for existing treaty rights to be respected, for more investment in housing and education and for new programs to address the high cost of living in First Nations communities.
Mr. Atleo says treaty rights were recognized in section 35 of the Constitution but that economic self-sufficiency and self-government is being held back by the refusal of federal and provincial governments to implement those rights.

He may have the edge in support over Mr. Beaucage, if only because of his strength in B.C., home to almost one third of the chiefs, compared to his rival’s home province of Ontario, which has 127 First Nations.

Mr. Bellegarde, and particularly Mr. Nelson, are intent on offering the chiefs in Calgary an alternative to the status quo. “We need to talk about a new fiscal relationship with the rest of Canada,” Mr. Bellegarde said. “We’ve been living with a 2% funding cap for years… The socio-economic gap with the rest of Canada is growing and the government has to fund key strategic investments to close that gap.”

Mr. Nelson, a Manitoba chief who famously said that the only way for natives to get government’s attention is to “pick up a gun,” said the dependence on government funding has to stop. “As long as the AFN is dependent on government funding, it will be ineffective,” he said, adding that he would explore funding from the Chinese government, which is interested in resource extraction on native land. “The chiefs are frustrated and angry enough to choose a different path,” he said, when asked about his chances.

It seems unlikely that this government is going to play nice with a group it has already decided it doesn’t like. But let’s hope Mr. Strahl is as good as his word when he says he wants to strike genuine partnerships to bring about economic development on native reserves. The government should also take action to increase spending on native education to the same level that non-aboriginal children enjoy. The Department of Indian Affairs’ own figures show that spending is around $1,200 less per student than provincial averages. That in itself doesn’t explain aboriginal high school graduation rates that are 50% lower than in the rest of Canada, but it clearly doesn’t help.

Equally, it must be hoped that whoever becomes national chief stops playing the blame game. The resistance of the AFN to good ideas like native-run regional school boards, on the basis that they are being imposed by a paternalistic Ottawa, don’t cut it anymore. The real reason for the opposition seems to be that individual bands will lose control of the funding that flows to them from the federal government.

The election of a new chief represents an opportunity for real change. As Mr. Atleo put it: “In the spirit of the residential schools apology, it’s about a mutually respectful, mutually advantageous relationship with the Crown. It hasn’t happened until now. It’s time.”

Time, too, for aboriginal politicians to accept their own responsibilities — perhaps starting with the introduction of a more democratic electoral system.

National Post
jivison@nationalpost.com

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