Political expediency trumps First Nations issues

Posted on May 4, 2013 in Equality Policy Context

TheStarPhoenix.com – news
May 3, 2013. By Doug Cuthand, Special to The StarPheonix

When Prime Minister Stephen Harper was asked about why people turn to terror, his answer spoke volumes: “It is no time to commit sociology.”

Harper’s parliamentary secretary, Pierre Poilievre, simplified the PM’s comment even further by stating the “root causes of terrorism are terrorists.”

Their comments reflect the Conservatives’ view of a world of absolutes and stark outcomes. This lack of deep thinking permeates much of what passes for public policy in Canada today. If an issue has traction and gains headlines, the government acts; if it doesn’t, the issue is put on the back burner.

Pollster Allen Gregg was addressing the Alberta Federation of Labour last week when he said: “It seems as though our government’s use of evidence and facts as the basis of policy is declining, and in their place, dogma, whim and political expediency are on the rise.”

The suicide of Rehtaeh Parsons compared to the tragedy in First Nations communities is a good example. Harper, along with Justice Minister Rob Nicholson, met with Rehtaeh’s parents and pledged to address the issue of cyber-bullying. Nicholson will also meet with Nova Scotia’s Justice minister.

Meanwhile, the band council of the Neskantaga First Nation in northern Ontario declared a state of emergency because of a suicide epidemic in the community. The community, which averages 10 suicide attempts a month and saw two young men commit suicide in the past month alone, is in shock and mourning. The band council is desperate for a solution.

Now, I don’t want to take away anything from the tragic case of Rehtaeh Parsons. It’s just that I would like to see some similar concern directed toward our people.

The Neskantaga council is fighting an uphill battle with addiction problems in the community, inadequate police services, and lack of access to proper mental health services, including addictions treatments and counselling. The community has the usual issues of poor housing and chronic poverty, and it’s under a boil water advisory.

Neskantaga shares a plethora of social and economic problems with many other isolated reserves. The Department of Aboriginal Affairs for years has marginalized these communities, offering them only welfare and rudimentary social services. The message is, “Don’t live here,” and, “We won’t do anything unless there’s pressure.”

This is classic colonial office thinking. Problems go unaddressed, and bureaucrats in Ottawa treat these communities with remote detachment. The solution, from the colonial office’s perspective, has been to blame the victims.

This approach was made crystal clear when Prime Minister Harper, by denigrating sociology, scoffed at people who look for root causes and underlying reasons for social problems. I studied sociology at university and found that it gave me a strong grounding when it came to analyzing society and determining how First Nations are treated or mistreated.

The sad stories of Rehtaeh Parsons and the Neskantaga First Nation are a good example. One tragedy gets a national profile and action to address it. The other one is underfunded and shoved aside.

The Assembly of First Nations has been lobbying for an inquiry into the disproportionate number of missing aboriginal women. Sisters in Spirit is a group that estimated there were 600 missing aboriginal women and girls in Canada as of 2010. The Harper government responded by cutting funding to the group and silencing its voice.

But the issue persists. Canadian society considers the lives of aboriginal women to be cheap. Serial killers such as Robert Pickton in Vancouver and John Crawford in Saskatoon preyed on aboriginal women because these women are vulnerable and isolated.

Deputy premier and Aboriginal Affairs Minister Eric Robinson of Manitoba recently hosted a meeting of provincial aboriginal affairs ministers. That group unanimously agreed to request that Ottawa conduct an inquiry into missing or murdered aboriginal women. Instead of providing a positive response, the Harper government pointed to its tough on crime agenda, which in most cases will provide no deterrence to serial killers.

This issue has been allowed to fester for years with negligible government response. The issue has been raised at the United Nations, and Canada’s international reputation has taken a hit.

But the government remains silent, and instead cuts back funding to aboriginal advocacy groups, curbs the Aboriginal Affairs budget and practices its old divisive tactics. The recent First Nations Transparency Act is designed to turn band members against their leaders. Ottawa is acting more like an old-time Indian agent rather than providing badly needed thoughtful leadership.

In a world of simple solutions and a lack of sociological analysis to determine root causes, we find that First Nations issues are ignored today while the government’s ideological agenda and appeal to the Conservative party’s base forms its aboriginal policy.

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