By Paul Barnsley, Windspeaker Staff Writer — When former Indian Affairs Minister Robert Nault decided to change the Indian Act in 2002, the launch of the First Nations governance act (FNGA) in a school auditorium on the Siksika First Nation territory in southern Alberta was a nationally-televised event.
“I am the most important person in your life,” Nault told the audience of First Nation students and teachers that day.
Nault later said he meant that he intended to change that intolerable situation by fundamentally changing the relationship between First Nations people and the federal government. But those words were used to portray him as an arrogant “great white father” as the bill proceeded through the legislative process. After a bitter fight mounted against it by First Nation leaders in the committee rooms of the House of Commons and in the media, the FNGA was eventually shelved.
In January, newly-elected Prime Minister Stephen Harper wrote to the leader of the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples stating the FNGA “was a strong pillar to advance the important reforms and we strongly support this bill.”
Ready or not, something similar to the FNGA will soon appear on the horizon and that’s not the only thing that has, or soon will, anger First Nation leaders.
When the Indian Affairs department recently released its plans and priorities for 2006-2007, it listed as a top priority “strengthened First Nations and Inuit governance and capacity through legislative, policy and programming initiatives.”
Add up all the recent cuts to Aboriginal programs and you’ll get the impression that Canada’s new federal government just might have some controversial opinions when it comes to Aboriginal peoples. But, since nobody within the government is saying exactly what kind of thinking motivates these decisions, it all remains guesswork.
But the list of cuts is long and apparently getting longer.
A $160-million cut to funding for programming aimed at preserving Aboriginal languages and cultures was announced in early November.
Ottawa sources say the SchoolNet program may be shifted from Industry Canada to Indian Affairs, but no budget will follow the program that allows remote schools to access quality instruction via the Internet.
And Metis federal government employee Randy Way points out that Treasury Board president John Baird has refused to sign off on an employment equity plan that would benefit women and Aboriginal people who want to work in the civil service.
“What concerns me is that Mr. Baird has withheld his signature from this program that was created by his own department,” Way wrote in an e-mail message obtained by Windspeaker and used with his permission. “The Harper government’s lack of support for this program is consistent with the unilateral approach that it has taken towards Aboriginals and visible minorities from the beginning. The government has killed the women’s equity program (Status of Women Canada), killed adult literacy programs (ironic, given the proven link between crime and poor literacy and the government’s supposed commitment to law and order) and is killing employment equity. How can the government stand here today and claim to represent all people of Canada?”
An analysis of the Indian Affairs department’s spending estimates over the next two fiscal years shows that departmental funding will drop by close to $500 million.
Add to that a couple of controversial comments by the Indian Affairs Minister Jim Prentice in November and observers are starting to wonder just what is going on.
Prentice refused to meet with Ontario Aboriginal Affairs Minister David Ramsay on the issues surrounding the Caledonia occupation of Douglas Creek Estates on Oct. 31, leaving the Ontario minister sitting in his office. When asked about the snub, Prentice said he skipped the meeting because Ramsay and Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty had been “grandstanding” on the issue of who was responsible for the costs incurred during the protest.
Then Prentice suggested that, because the land grant that was at the centre of the dispute in Caledonia happened before Confederation, it was a provincial responsibility. That comment left a lot of people shaking their heads.
Tony Penikett, a former premier of the Yukon and an experienced provincial land claim negotiator, recently wrote Reconciliation, First Nations Treaty Making in British Columbia, a book on his experiences at the negotiating table that has been widely praised as a balanced and detailed look at Aboriginal relations.
Penikett was asked about the sparks between Prentice and the Ontario minister.
“On any matter money, or what politicians would call matters of high principle, which usually means money,” he said, chuckling, “there’s always a fight. Even with rich provinces like Ontario and the federal government, especially when they’re of two different political stripes, you have disputesbuck passing is one way of describing itespecially on complex questions like the situation that’s going on in Caledonia. The fact of the matter is that the federal government does have the principle responsibility constitutionally for Indians and Indian lands, Section 91-24 responsibilities.”
Penikett sees the Conservatives going in a very different direction.
“There’s no doubt the federal government is changing its approach. The rejection of the financial commitments in Kelowna was a pretty clear signal that they were going to pursue a different path. My reading of the situation is not black and white. I suspect that the direction of the federal Conservative government on questions of Aboriginal policy is much undecided,” he said.
Ramsay told Windspeaker he was shocked to hear Prentice say the land question at Caledonia was a provincial matter.
“Quite frankly, I don’t understand. Ontario, or any other province or territory has neither the power nor the authority on federal land. That is held by the federal government,” he said.
Windspeaker asked if the federal position could be read as an expression of a political ideology.
“I’ll give the benefit of the doubt. I’ll put it this way: I feel that, to move this file along across the country, I think governments have to stop listening to their lawyers and make a political determination that we are going to settle land claims. I think that’s the nub of this. I don’t think it’s ideology necessarily.”
But Liberal MP Gary Merasty, former grand chief of the Prince Albert Grand Council in Saskatchewan, said the Conservatives are not being straight up about their financial plans for the Indian Affairs department.
“There’s a huge frustration at the lack of movement on Kelowna, even to the point of misrepresentation of what they’re proposing to actually be doing,” he said. “They’ve said that this government has given more to Aboriginal people than any other government in the history of the country, and that is $3.3 billion or something like that. But $2.2 billion of that was the residential school agreement.”
Of the approximately $1 billion remaining, Merasty said $600 million is going to provinces and territories and not directly into the hands of First Nations and Metis people.
“Then you have $450 million left and that is spread over two years; $150 million this year, which none of it has moved yet and the minister acknowledged that when I questioned him at the committee, and $300 million is set to move next year. So the reality is that none of that $150 million has moved this year. In fact, we’re at a net loss in the First Nations and Metis communities because they’ve clawed back with these recent cuts money from health and Indian Affairs and other departments.”
Some of the ideas floated by Prentice have Merasty concerned as well.
“The minister’s talked about fee simple land ownership. To me that’s a very, very scary issue because the Americans did this. It was called the Dawes Act,” Merasty said.
The Dawes Act allowed for reservation lands to be sold or seized in repayment of outstanding debts. It led to a phenomenon that is referred to checkerboard reservations where chunks of reserve land were privately held and the communities were put under tremendous strains. Between the trend to fewer individuals being granted status as a result of the provisions of Bill C-31 and the proposal to allow private land ownership, Merasty sees big troubles ahead.
“Think about it. There’ll be no Indians and no land reserved for Indians. Big picture-wise, that’s the issue for me and I’m tracking this as my role. And also these cuts are extremely concerning because I think we’re at a net loss in funding,” he said.
Osgoode Hall Law Professor Shin Imai said the idea that provinces might have the liability for pre-Confederation claims is “not a new thing that came in with Jim Prentice.”
He said it’s a tactic that department of Justice lawyers have come up with in the ongoing fight to protect the Crown from legal liability.
“It’s sort of this underground fight that has been going on in litigation. To me, it just makes no sense. Just looking at Confederation and how it works and our Constitution, whatever happened before Confederation the idea is that we got together at Confederation and created a federal government and set up the structure,” he said. “And the structure says in 91-24 that Indians and lands reserved for Indians are the federal responsibility, so that’s where the jurisdiction is. I just find it totally astounding that they would say, “Well, go back pre-Confederation, because our constitutional structure wasn’t built on what was happening before Confederation. Prentice’s statement was . . . it makes no sense to me in our constitutional structure. I don’t see the logic in it. And maybe that’s why he’s now backing down from it. Maybe he’s been made to realize that it’s an untenable position.”
Imai noted that the Law Commission of Canada also got cut.
“The last thing they sent out was a discussion paper on Indigenous legal traditions and the background research was done by John Borrows. I asked for all the copies to use in my classes because it’s just terrific. So they’re doing terrific work, but maybe it’s upsetting the current prime minister. They don’t want all this terrific work done on Aboriginal issues,” he said.
The law professor believes the government has sent all kinds of messages that it’s departing radically from past approaches.
“I think that with Stephen Harper there’s been a definite change and it’s just an objective fact.” Regarding the decision to back away from the Kelowna accord Imai said “It’s a decision they made and they were happy to make it. I think he’s changing the course of government’s relationships with Aboriginal people. It’s conscious. They want to do it and they’re doing it. From their point of view, they’re doing it for a good reason. The Congress of Aboriginal Peoples loves it.
They think they should get rid of reserves. For those people who are more inclined to affiliate and recognize their own cultural identity and the importance of collective consciousness and collective rights and nationhood, it’s definitely a hostile turn.”
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