Moment of Truth As Harper Preps For Meeting With First Nations


This is a guest post by Michael Harris, originally published on

Keep the Indians off the front-page.

That, in a phrase, is the Harper approach to aboriginal issues in Canada. With the exception of former prime minister Paul Martin, that has pretty much been the playbook for all federal governments — out of sight, out of mind. Mostly, he’s succeeded.

As every special event organizer in Ottawa knows, feathers, beaded shirts and drums are excellent grace notes on state occasions — provided there is no debate about who’s in charge in every part of the country or why aboriginals remain the poorest people in the land.

The current PM’s preferred method is to deal with native “leaders” in the posh, official backwaters of Ottawa — bureaucracy-to-bureaucracy. Nation-to-Nation exists only in nightmare form for Stephen Harper. After all, that notion implies equality. The PM prefers a venue where he gets to play with his own dice, a place far from the bad water, poor schools and third-world housing of reserve life.

Whether it’s Canada’s natives or its health ministers, Stephen Harper’s preferred place for his opponents is under his thumb. He has replaced the alternating current of democracy with the direct current of oligarchy. Ordinary people remain as invisible to him now as they have been since 2006.

For that reason, Chief Theresa Spence’s hunger strike has been a disaster for the man who doesn’t like to negotiate, let alone negotiate with a nobody, especially a nobody who has managed to put him under the gun. Remember, this is a guy who wouldn’t even talk to Canada’s premiers. Now they know the drill: stop eating.

Yes, Harper has been pressured into calling an emergency meeting with aboriginal leaders on Chief Spence’s timetable and with Chief Spence present. Even the PM knew he couldn’t just let an aging Indian chief die for want of a conversation with him — especially with Northern Gateway off in the deep woods of 2013.

The usual media honour guard that protects the PM’s flanks is now harrumphing about how reasonable the government is being. Some are even saying the meeting represents success for Canada’s most famous hunger striker.

Those views are being offered against the dark cloth of Chief Spence’s alleged hypocritical conniving. One media branch-plant employee of the PMO even accused her of being a media manipulator. Really? So far she’s been called a bluff, a blackmailer, a terrorist and a fraud. Some manipulation.

The pathetic state of our national debate on aboriginals is what makes it possible to take the January 11th meeting seriously. It will be camera fodder, no matter what the joint communique says. Like all such documents, it will be written before the event unfolds. Canada’s native peoples need another meeting with government like Jose Canseco needs another shot of steroids.

Does anyone really believe the PM has had a conversion on the road to Attawapiskat? How long will he contribute to the working session? Does anyone think Chief Spence’s call for action will be answered by anything other than the bureaucratic sludge in which these events are normally embalmed?

At best, what will be offered is some preliminary, draft, non-binding, yet-to-be-finalized, agreement-in-principle on a set of suggested issues to-be-worked-out by special committees who will report by the next time Halley’s Comet appears. At worst? Chief Spence will refuse to take part in yet another official charade and return to her teepee to finish the grim work of ending the status quo one way or another.

What aboriginals need is for treaties to be honoured on something other than the long hours of the geological clock. What they need is legislative protection for their lands and equal say in the laws that govern them as guaranteed by the Constitution. But what they have gotten from Stephen Harper since his “official” apology to Aboriginal Peoples in 2008 has not quite lived up to the billing of a “renewed” relationship.

The Harper government has unilaterally changed the Indian Act. It has unilaterally changed environmental legislation that weakens protection of fresh water and endangered fish species. It has made it easier for major developments to take place with less study of the environmental impact and no equal say for aboriginals. And in 2012, the very year Stephen Harper pledged to renew the search for justice for all native peoples, his “little minister” — as Chief Spence described John Duncan — announced sweeping cuts for core aboriginal organizations across Canada.

One hundred expert academics signed a damning letter to Duncan last November decrying the loss of funding for native communities in the area of health, clean drinking water, education and infrastructure. “The potential loss of expertise is staggering, and could take a generation to recover from,” the researchers warned.

As for the cuts endured by aboriginals across Canada, they were featured on a billboard in Saskatoon. One native group, the Assembly of Manitoba, saw its funds reduced by 80 per cent. The Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations lost 70 per cent of its funding. From one end of Canada to the other, every native group faced cuts of at least 10 per cent.

Chief Cliff Atleo of the Nuu-chah-Nulth Tribal Council had this to say after his group was forced to absorb a funding cut of 60 per cent: “I think the federal government has picked a fight with us and we’re prepared to take them on.”

The plain fact of the matter is that aboriginal anger builds slowly underground before the volcano of frustration erupts. These are patient — not docile — people.

With the Constitution Act of 1982, they believed that their special rights and status would be implemented under section 35 (1). Eight years went by with no real progress on comprehensive land claims. The tremors grew in intensity: the Innu occupation of the NATO base at Goose Bay, the boycott of the Calgary Winter Olympics by the Lubicon Cree and so many blockades in the B.C. interior that it stopped the flow of resources being taken from native land.

It was only after nearly a decade of unfulfilled promises of inclusion that the eruptions came in what Dene Nation professor Glen Coulthard called the “Indian Summer” of 1990. Elijah Harper, a Cree member of the Manitoba legislature, helped sink the Meech Lake Accord, in part because aboriginals were once again left out of the negotiations. Then came the 78-day armed standoff between the Mohawk nation of Kanesatake and police and the Canadian armed forces near Oka, Quebec. After the tragic death of Corporal Marcel Lemay of the Quebec Surete, the federal government finally acted.

Its answer in the summer of 1991 was to set up the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples. When this five-volume, 4,000-page report with its 440 recommendations was published in 1996, it was two years behind schedule and had spent $58 million. Although the commission was supposed to deal with the abusive relationship that had developed between Aboriginal Peoples and Canada, aboriginals to this day are waiting for the promised “renewed” relationship and the “sharing.”

No one in Canada knows better than its aboriginals that a moment of truth has arrived for both them and the land. For good or ill, an explosion of development quivers over the West and the Arctic. Huge fortunes will be made by a few, great change will be ushered in, and the environment will be altered forever. Either the aboriginals make their stand now, or they will be eternally bypassed. As Grand Chief Stewart Phillip put it, “We’re the last line of defence between the country’s resources and a federal government that wants to open it up and devastate it.”

Yes, they will go to another meeting. But this crisis didn’t start on December 11, 2012.

That is an Honour Song you hear soughing through the trees — and once again the earth is moving.

-by Michael Harris

Originally published on Reprinted with permission.

Image credit: Deb Ransom, accessed via Prime Minister’s Office


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