Mr Harper’s End Game

It is telling that the Idle No More movement started with four First Nations women—Nina Wilson, Sylvia McAdam, Jessica Gordon and Sheelah McLean who gave the first “Idle No More” teach-in. Sylvia McAdam is a lawyer, as is Tanya Kappo, who first tweeted #idlenomore. Perhaps they are of the “New People” of the Anishinaabek Seventh Fire prophecy. Perhaps they are of those who refuse to see themselves as victims, but rather as human beings with rights that are being eroded and responsibilities that need taking up, Time will tell, as it has told of past abuses and as it is telling of present wrongs.

FN Idle on soc media G&M2Jan13In 2007, Mr Harper gave the Kashechewan First Nation a choice. Either stay where they were put in 1957, or move to Timmins—stay in a place where you might get sick again from E-coli or lose your land and move to town. To become what? Beggars? Assimilated? The people suggested a third way and asked Mr Harper to move them upstream, to their original home. He refused.

During the pomp and ceremony of Mr Harper’s apology to Aboriginal Canada for the Indian Residential School System, a Native commentator on the CBC radio said “at least it was well written.” (I think it was Mary Simon, but I can’t find the clip on the CBC website and queries have gone unanswered). It was her way of wondering if the apology was sincere and would ever lead to reconciliation.

Perhaps she had seen this sort of thing before. Such apologies are cheaply made and dearly bought. They give only the appearance of reconciliation, because only equals can be reconciled. An apology is insincere if made to people abused, for they are in no position to refuse it. But refuse it they must lest the apologizer take his apology as licence for some fresh offence.

Indeed, the ink was hardly dry on the apology when the federal government cancelled a scheduled increase in funding aimed at rescuing First Nations’ languages fading from decades in residential schools.

In 2011, Attawapiskat declared a housing emergency. Mr Harper’s first response was to blame the Band. He even appointed a third party manager (at $1300 a day), which the courts determined was neither warranted nor needed. What remains from that crisis (and you can see it in comments posted on stories about Chief Spence’s fast) is the public perception that First Nations’ governments are corrupt.

They are not. Even the recently leaked audit of Attawapiskat’s financial management makes no allegations of fraud or theft. It does however, point out some serious lapses in accounting practices and its recommendations are aimed as much at the government as they are the First Nation.

In 2012, the Harper government passed two omnibus bills which somehow implemented the budget by weakening environmental laws that “corrupt” First Nations leaders use to protect their traditional territories.

As environmental lawyer Dianne Saxe puts it, “The cumulative effect of the government’s changes to the Fisheries Act, the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, and the Navigable Waters Act is to dramatically reduce the protection to fish and waterways. This must be of concern to First Nations, indeed to all of us.”

Now there is a suite of nine or ten separate legislative initiatives that will directly affect First Nations governance.

There’s Bill C-27, the First Nations Financial Transparency Act. About time you say? Overkill, Sheila Fraser would say. Would that Indian Affairs was held to the same standards, and she said as much in her 2006 and 2011 reports.

Bill S-8, the Safe Drinking Water for First Nations Act doesn’t actually provide safe drinking water to reserves. What it does, is dump a bunch more regulations and reporting obligations on First Nations without the funds to actually, you know, deliver safe drinking water.

The First Nations Private Property Ownership Act is still a twinkle in Tom Flanagan’s eye, but when it hits the floor of the House of Commons it will, like the Dawes Act in the US, do the dirty work of separating First Nations’ people from their land.

Consultation (and its obverse, accommodation) is, according to the Supreme Court of Canada, the best path to reconciliation. It is the only way to peacefully resolve the tangle of federal, provincial, First Nation and corporate jurisdictions, rights, claims and obligations. Besides, like it or not, it’s the law.

Apparently the Harper government doesn’t like it. If it consults at all, its consultation has all the substance and nourishment of a Cheeto. There was no consultation on the legislative changes described here and insufficient consultation (let alone accommodation) regarding the impact of the oil sands in Alberta or the large mining projects coming to the Ring of Fire in Ontario.

To make matters worse, the Harper government is slashing the budgets of Treaty Organizations by some by 50-70%. These organizations provide expertise to their member First Nations in a number of areas, including financial reporting and assistance in consultations with government and industry.

Meanwhile, provincial and federal governments are spending more money on tax-breaks and subsidies to oil and gas and mining companies than they spend on First Nations health, education and housing.

And that, in case you’re wondering, is why young First Nations people are idle no more.

© David McLaren January 2012

A version of this article (not the final and badly edited) appeared in the Forum section of Sunmedia papers on January 12, 2013 under the heading (not mine) “Native Rights, Government Wrongs.”

FN Idle QMI photo

A Bit More …

The Olthuis Kleer Townshend Law Firm website has a 2-page summary of the legislative changes referred to above:

Very briefly, the changes to environmental legislation in omnibus Bills C-38 and C-45 can be summarized as follows (follow the links for more information) …
The revamped Fisheries Act begs the question (which will surely be put to the courts): What, for the purposes of the Act, is an “Aboriginal fishery?” The new Canadian Environmental Assessment Act removed a number of projects from the list of those requiring an Environmental Assessment, including the transportation of nuclear waste and restricts who can participate in EAs. The Navigable Waters Protection Act reduced the number of lakes and rivers that fall under the Act from several millions to 62 rivers and 97 lakes (including twelve in Minister Clement’s riding—call it the Goldie Hawn Vacation Get-away Protection Act). The Kemptville Creek is protected but the mighty AttawapiskatRiver is not on the list.

For comment on blaming Attawapiskat at Slaw, Canada’s online law magazine:

For the law (and the benefit) of consultation and accommodation go to Haida vs BC at:

For Alanis Obomsawin’s documentary on the housing crisis at Attwapiskat:

For a good deconstruction of “The Free Housing for Natives Myth” (and other stereotypes):

Wab Kinew deals with stereotypes in under 2 minutes at Strombo’s Soap Box:

For a revealing look at Treaty 9 (which covers Attawapiskat and several other FNs and which clearly recognizes their right to harvest in the surrendered territories) see George MacMartin’s Big Canoe Trip, CBC Ideas, January 10/13:
Treaty 9 at the Ontario Arcives:

And even more ..John Borrows.

John Borrows is a Nawash Band member, who, as a law professor and scholor is frequently quoted by the Supreme Court of Canada in its rulings. He is currently the Robina Professor in Law, Public Policy and Society, University of Minnesota Law School.

John sent me his repsonses to some questions the CBC posed to him regarding Idle No More. With his permission, I reprint them here.

1. Mr. Atleo has described the Idle No More protests as a “tipping point” in the relationship between Aboriginal Peoples and the rest of Canada? Do you agree, and if so, how would you characterize the current state of that relationship on the eve of the January 11 summit?

Aboriginal peoples’ lives are drastically shorter than other Canadians and marked by more suffering as measured by considerably higher rates of poverty, injury, and incarceration, and significantly lower levels of education, income and health. This did not occur in an instant; we have long passed the “tipping point” in the relationship between Aboriginal peoples and others. We are in crisis mode, and there is no politically-driven prospect of salvaging the relationship; it is already broken and lies in ruins all around us.


2. There appears to be a radicalization or a movement to action that is reminiscent of the Oka crisis of 1990? Would you agree? If so, what are the factors that have led to this national re awakening of Aboriginal activism?

Aboriginal peoples are living through a period of profound, extended, multi-generational trauma, and this issue only comes to the attention of most Canadians every few years. At the same time, Aboriginal activism is ever-pervasive and is always present within and outside of Aboriginal communities; in this respect ‘Idle No More’ is really nothing new. Though Aboriginal activism does not often rise to the level of national ‘news’, Aboriginal peoples have long taken daily and longer-term steps of resistance to protect their lands, languages and resources, even while others within their midst ‘silently’ succumb to the despair spawned by the overwhelming challenge of finding success in these endeavors.


3. The governments omnibus bill was a trigger for the Idle No More protests, and the flashpoint legislation involves management of reserve lands and access to and protection of ancestral lands and resources on it. These are essentially unresolved treaty issues and incredibly complex. Some Canadians feel that aboriginal demands about ancestral lands are completely unrealistic. Others feel differently. How does the Canadian government move forward in future generations in addressing this issue?

Within current structures, the Canadian government cannot and will not be able to effectively address Aboriginal issues, either through legislation, litigation, education or economic development. Throughout history they have tried – and failed – again, again, and again. While there are some small-scale exceptions, experience from Canada and other parts of the world where Aboriginal issues are present demonstrates the same thing. No political party or philosophy will solve these issues. It is a moral, cultural, structural, and spiritual problem of the deepest order – it rests on intangibles which cannot be manufactured through policy or solved with money. Solutions will never arise unless we cultivate practical goodwill in our own and other’s hearts and minds. Governments (Indian Act, federal and provincial) have never been effective moral agents in this field. There is no evident reason to expect anything different from any governmental entity in the coming months.


4. Another big issue is the Indian Act. It is one Canada’s oldest pieces of legislation and out of date. And yet to remove it would produce a legislative vacuum. How do you suggest this problem be tackled in future years?

The philosophy underlying the Indian Act is the policy proposal most frequently vetted in Parliament and in national news editorials, on-line comments and letters to the editor. This approach is characterized by ideas which advocate liquidating reserves, dismantling distinctive Indigenous-run governments, and educating “Indians” to participate in the broader society. This is as true today, as in 1876 when the Indian Act was passed. No government has seriously proposed any other approach to dealing with Aboriginal issues, even in the present-day. This policy has failed miserably but in the coming months it will likely be dressed up in new clothes and once again advanced as the solution to Aboriginal issues.

At the same time it is important to add that the Indian Act’s removal would not create a legislative vacuum. All law does not arise from Parliament or the courts; our constitution and traditions clearly recognize this fact. Thus, if the Indian Act were repudiated without replacement, law – including laws made by Indigenous peoples themselves – would continue to govern this situation. Yet, while law would still be with us, I wonder whether love, humility, honesty, kindness, bravery, respect and truth would continue to be absent from its application, even within an Aboriginal context. While these values are definitely practiced within and across Aboriginal and Canadian societies more generally, we have yet not found an effective way to have them animate our broader political and legal relationships.


5. As we look forward to the Jan 11 meeting, whats the single most important action the government can take to improve the relationship with Aboriginal peoples in Canada? 

The Canadian government can do very little, at present, to improve relationships with Aboriginal peoples. It could admit this fact, and hold a mirror up to our collective psyche, thus demonstrating the profoundly deep divisions lying at the heart of our divergent aspirations. However, since no government will likely undertake an ambitious exercise of this nature – thus gazing into the ailing heart of our failing constitutional relations – governments will not take the single most important step to address these issues.


6. What is the moral reason to fix the relationship? What is the economic one? 

Treaties between the Crown and First Nations often saw the parties pledge to live together in peace, friendship and respect. While we have not often lived in accordance with treaty promises, such values and principles could form the moral and economic foundation of parties’ relationships. Building lives together in this spirit could create the basis for a strong economic relationship which included each other’s ideas and aspirations. However, most current commentators are too ‘cynical, pragmatic or realistic’ to think genuine peace, mutual friendship and deep respect could be achieved, or form the basis of our real relationships today. Treaties are often called old-fashioned, anachronistic, or out-of-date, thus dismissing deeper values of consultation, consent and mutuality which could lie at the heart of Canada’s moral and economic relationships.


7. Some have argued that Prime Minister Stephen Harpers government has made efforts to improve the relationship, with the Apology, and the Crown-First Nations meetings, others feel that the efforts do not adequately deal with the depth of the problems. Under Paul Martin’s government, there was the Kelowna Accord, which envisioned broad funding for education and social welfare policies. What is your assessment of the current government’s efforts to improve the “relationship”?

There has been very little to praise or celebrate under any political party’s approach to Aboriginal issues. While less culpable, the same can be said for how most Indian Act bands and organizations have also approached the relationship. This is why people are marching in the streets. We are in deep trouble as a nation because of our collective failure through many generations.


8. How do the Aboriginal communities in Canada begin to strategize about the future when the goals and perspectives are so diverse and varying?

Every society’s goals and perspectives are diverse and varied; Aboriginal peoples are no different. Canada has majority and minority parties in Parliament and within each legislature. Judicial opinions contain majority and dissenting opinions. Media outlets and networks cater to conservative, liberal, social democratic and independent voter opinions of different stripes. Churches, unions, businesses and other social organizations also include people of oft-divergent views.

Aboriginal peoples should be recognized as holding the same degree of human diversity as is present within Canada more generally. 

Thus, Aboriginal peoples’ best strategy in developing towards future goals is to build an acceptance and recognition of Aboriginal dissent and difference within, across and beyond their societies. Aboriginal peoples should not be constrained by conceptions which falsify or misrepresent the level of consensus needed within Aboriginal society to move forward, especially when this is not expected of other political communities within Canada. In fact, we might even say that Canada’s ability to incorporate disagreement through democratic means is one of its pillars of strength. Recognition of this fact could extend to Aboriginal peoples these same privileges.


9. The Aboriginal young population which is growing looks set to change the conversation with the rest of Canada, using social media and other forms of protest. What can we expect from this generation in the years ahead?

The messages spread through social media and other forms of protest are very similar to the messages circulated through older forms of communication. Aboriginal messages were rejected when they took older forms; I cannot see any reasons they are more likely to be accepted in their ‘newer’ forms, at least under current circumstances. The divide is deep and the relationships are too frayed to expect much change, without the kind of moral and constitutional recalibration suggested earlier in these comments.

We need an infusion of some very non-political values to guide our future paths – love, humility, honesty, kindness, bravery, respect and truth. These are the seven grandfather teachings of the Chippewa/Ojibwe people, and they have resonance in many other traditions, yet they are not broadly practiced by any party in our dominant political forums. Practical political progress will elude us until we begin relating to one another in a different way.

 Click here for the CBC article, with others’ comments too.


About David McLaren

David McLaren is an award-winning writer. He has worked in government and the private sector, with NGOs and First Nations in Ontario. He is currently writing from Neyaashiinigamiing on the shore of Georgian Bay and can be reached at In February 2015, he won the nomination for the NDP to represent the riding of Bruce-Grey-Owen Sound in the 2015 federal election. See that page for writings during the campaign.
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4 Responses to Mr Harper’s End Game

  1. Pingback: How to be a #settler ally | Valley Road Rambler

  2. Pingback: Great articles related to Idle No More | Daniel Rueck, PhD

  3. Emannuell says:

    Next time I read a blog, I hope that it does not disappoint me just as much as this one. I mean, I know it was my choice to read, nonetheless I truly believed you’d have something useful to talk about. All I hear is a bunch of moaning about something you can fix if you weren’t too busy searching for attention.

    • Emannuell,

      If you read the articles on this page carefully you will see a number of solutions that would go a long way to ‘fix’ the broken relationship between Turtle Island and Canada. The most important one is for our government to obey Canadian law and consult properly with First Nations before they do something that might harm Aboriginal and Treaty rights (s.35 of our Constitution).

      John Borrows offers other solutions:
      – Aboriginal people should continue to advocate for the protection of the environment on which most of their rights depend.
      – Governments need to make room for First Nation rights and claims and aspirations, not try to legislate control over them.
      – With respect and courage and proper consultation re-negotiate the Indian Act to fully recognize Aboriginal reality and diversity.
      – The legal framework for re-negotiation already exists — in the treaties.

      There are many other solutions (there is never just one) that you could consider if you followed some of the links in this article. But perhaps you are one of those who are refusing to listen to solutions. If that is the case, then you might consider starting your education with the Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples.

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