Stephen Harper ignores Canada’s First Nations at own peril
TheStar.com – news/Canada – The prime minister must curry favour with Canadian aboriginals if his resource agenda is to succeed. Why then is he so obdurate?
Oct 17 2013. By: Thomas Walkom, National Affairs
Historically, the Canadian government has catered to aboriginals only when it needed them. It needs them now.
Specifically, Prime Minister Stephen Harper needs First Nations on side if his government is to push through its ambitious resource development plans and reap the requisite political awards.
British Columbia’s native communities have the capacity to tie up — perhaps indefinitely — Harper’s proposed oil pipeline to the Pacific Coast. They have promised to do just that.
Mining development in northern Ontario’s so-called ring of fire can take place only if First Nations there agree.
So far, the Ontario government has been carrying out the ring-of-fire negotiations. But Ottawa too wants those minerals developed and the federal government’s approach to native people is bound to have an effect on any final deal.
Whether Harper fully understands all of this is unclear. He’s reputed to be a master tactician. But with a few exceptions, the prime minister has been remarkably tone deaf about Indian, Métis and Inuit issues.
He has offended the mainstream aboriginal organizations, first by limiting their core funding and then by bypassing them altogether in his planned reforms to the Indian Act.
For the Inuit of the Eastern Arctic, global warming is a real and immediate threat. Yet in Conservative-dominated Ottawa, climate change is a non-issue.
True, Harper has apologized on behalf of former governments for any abuses suffered by aboriginal children in Canada’s now defunct residential school system. True also that after three years of bitter opposition, his government signed the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
But apologies and UN declarations are cheap. The aboriginal leadership — and the aboriginal grassroots — want much, much more.
For the Harper Conservatives, all of this is a bitter pill to swallow.
Up to now, their approach to aboriginal issues has been based on a rejection of what they see as tired, old liberal shibboleths.
As political scientist and one-time Harper intimate Tom Flanagan argued in his 2000 book, First Nations? Second Thoughts, the liberal emphasis on native rights and aboriginal self-government served only to create a new elite of bureaucrats, overpaid band politicians and cronies, leaving most natives in misery.
A better solution, according to Flanagan and others, was to focus on market solutions and, in particular, to replace communal land ownership of reserves with some form of individual property rights.
If, say, a Cree living on a remote reserve in northwestern Ontario could mortgage his home, these analysts argued, then he might be able to raise enough capital to start a small business.
For Harper, this was the way to go. One of his first acts on becoming prime minister in 2006 was to scrap the $5 billion Kelowna Accordhammered out between First Nations and the previous Liberal government.
Harper said the accord, an ambitious agreement aimed at countering everything from aboriginal suicide to poverty, was too expensive. But that was just part of the problem. To hard-right conservatives, Kelowna — with its big-money, top-down approach — represented everything that was wrong about the liberal approach to native issues.
Instead, in its 2012 budget, the Conservative government announced its centrepiece aboriginal initiative — a plan to introduce property rights to reserves.
At the same time, it unilaterally changed environmental laws protecting rivers and lakes, blithely ignoring arguments that First Nations must be consulted when their traditional areas are affected.
Currently, the government is putting together a bill aimed at improving the level of schooling for aboriginals. But here too it has ignored the native leadership in preparing these plans — with predictable results.
In a recent interview with Postmedia News, Assembly of First Nations national Chief Shawn Atleo dismissed the proposed bill as “assimilationist.”
So that’s the record. On Wednesday, in a throne speech otherwise marked by bloated rhetoric and hyperbole, the government made only the briefest of references to natives — to their contributions or their needs.
We shall see if any of this goes anywhere. For Harper’s resource agenda, the clock is ticking.
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