The Slow, Painful Death of CAP: Can it be Saved?
The Congress of Aboriginal Peoples (CAP) is a national Aboriginal organization that once claimed to represent the interests of status and non-status Indians living off-reserve in Canada. The current national President is Betty-Ann Lavallee who used to be the President of one of CAP's affiliates - the New Brunswick Aboriginal Peoples Council (NBAPC).
CAP has recently changed its website and in so doing, has changed the focus of who it claims to represent being "the interests of its provincial and territorial affiliate organizations". The provincial and territorial affiliates of CAP located in the East receive core funding for their operations, whereas those in the west have struggled without much success in obtaining funding. CAP's board of directors are comprised of the Presidents of each of the affiliate organizations - most of whom, including CAP, prefer to be referred to as "Chiefs" - ironic given their anti-Chief stance.
CAP used to be known as the Native Council of Canada (NCC) and in its early years had incredibly dynamic, passionate leaders who advocated strongly on behalf of those Aboriginal peoples who were excluded from legal recognition and equal access to Aboriginal and treaty rights as well as programs and services. Incredible leaders like Viola Robinson, Tony Belcourt, Harry Daniels, Ron George, and Dwight Dorey went on to make other significant contributions to the plight of off-reserve Aboriginal peoples.
The NCC was there at the constitutional talks, they advocated for equality for Aboriginal women during the Bill C-31 era, and were on the front-lines organizing protests when governments were going to reduce housing for off-reserve Aboriginal peoples. The NCC at the time also represented Metis peoples and their struggles for recognition and equality long before the Powley case and the creation of the Metis National Council (MNC). Some may find it hard to believe, but the NCC and the Assembly of First Nations (AFN)(formerly NIB) used to work closely together on a wide variety of issues.
Unfortunately, those days are long over. The NCC (now CAP) started its slow, downward descent when Patrick Brazeau (then Vice-President) assumed the position of President when former President, Dwight Dorey stepped down after 7 years in office. There was no election for the position of President by the members of the off-reserve - it was an automatic assumption of Presidency as per CAP's Constitution and By-Laws. Brazeau served less than 3 years as the National President, but in that short time managed to nearly destroy CAP and its reputation.
Some Board members of CAP have indicated that Brazeau served a limited purpose in that he at least raised the profile of CAP and should be commended for his aggressive media agenda. I disagree. Simply raising the media profile of an organization is not an accomplishment if the reasons for why the profile was raised are negative or serve to hurt others. Brazeau used CAP as his "launching pad" to obtain media attention for himself, not CAP; align himself politically with the Conservative Party; and eventually jump ship and land himself a conservative Senate seat all while trashing First Nations and their leaders. That might suit Brazeau's interests, but what did CAP get out of the deal?
If you listen to Board members and various media reports, what Brazeau left CAP with was controversy, destroyed relationships with other NAO's, allegations of sexual harassment, a decreased budget, financial turmoil, and worst of all - a confused and discouraged membership. Brazeau, now Senator Brazeau, has been described in the media as a "loose cannon" and "self-promoting" for spewing negativity against First Nations communities and their leaders at every opportunity. Unfortunately for CAP, this still has repercussions for them given how he used his position at CAP to gain his initial media profile.
But that is as far as my sympathy goes for CAP. Once Brazeau finally agreed to give up his Presidency at CAP (and not obtain both a CAP salary and Senate salary as the he had originally intended) CAP had every opportunity to distance itself from the self-serving Brazeau-legacy. It could have elected leadership which would bring CAP back to its roots and its core mandate to be THE political voice for off-reserve Aboriginal peoples and take the much-needed steps to repair its relationships with other NAO's and more importantly, the grass roots people Brazeau left behind.
That is not what happened. Wisely or unwisely, some voters in the Atlantic region reported difficulty getting the then President of NBAPC, Betty-Ann Lavallee, to do any work on behalf of its constituency and so decided that if they could not get rid of her constitutionally (as she always had her lawyer by her side), then voting her into CAP would at least get her out of NB. I can see the appeal of such an approach. The plan worked, except no one could foresee that no election would held at the NBAPC and that a staff member of the NBAPC would eventually acclaimed as President. This has left many NB members dazed and confused to say the least.
But, that is all just the behind the scenes and media gossip. It will never be confirmed or denied and no explanations will ever be forthcoming as is the case in political controversies. In fairness, CAP should be judged on its record. In the short time that Betty-Ann Lavallee has been President of CAP, she has shown an eerily similar disposition to that of Brazeau, although much less informed. Lavallee has demonstrated that she will flip-flip CAP's position on just about any issue to suit the conservative party line. All of this is done in the name of CAP but without consulting in a meaningful way with its own members (not Board) on issues that are important to them.
By way of example, CAP prepared a submission to Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC)to put on the record its position on Bill C-3 Gender Equity in Indian Registration Act. CAP argued that INAC did not consult with Aboriginal peoples, that the Indian Act's registration provisions were discriminatory, and that section 6(1) of the Act should be amended to include all those born pre-1985 to remedy the full extent of gender inequality in that provision. By the time it rolled around to CAP's turn to present to the Standing Committee on Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development (AAON) on Bill C-3, CAP had changed its tune and was willing to support the bill.
In case there was any doubt about CAP's Brazeau-esque support of the Conservative Government, when CAP appeared before the Senate Standing Committee on Bill S-4 Matrimonial Real Property on Reserve, Lavallee specifically endorsed the Conservative Party's suite of legislation. In fact, if you read the transcripts of her submission on Bill S-4, it sounds more like a Conservative Party ad for their initiatives than any sustantive input on the bill. She cited the residential schools apology, Bill S-4, Bill C-3, and the right of Indians to vote as significant evidence of the Conservative Government's commitment to "humanity" for Aboriginal peoples. If anyone was under any doubt about whether Lavallee's CAP would abandon the Brazeau legacy or cuddle up to the Conservatives - Lavallee settled it that day.
Furthermore, in stark contrast to Brazeau's media blitz, Lavallee is almost never in the media on any issue. It is as though CAP has fallen off the face of the earth. CAP used to stand for equality and didn't make deals that were harmful to its members. Now the CAP Presidency is used either as a political launching pad or just a job. Some might say that I am simply being critical of any NAO. To my mind, what I am most critical of is the holier-than-thou hypocrisy started by Brazeau and being carried forward by Lavallee.
When Brazeau accepted his Senate seat, he announced to the public that he would be maintaining his position and salary at CAP as well as drawing a Senate salary. This seems to be a pretty hypocritical position for one who has so vocally criticized any First Nation Chief that only makes ONE 6 figure salary, let alone TWO. Brazeau criticizes First Nations for not respecting the rights of Aboriginal women, yet it was Brazeau who made headlines for having sexual harassment complaints and made disparaging remarks against all the Aboriginal women who offered testimony on Bill S-4. Lavallee has proven to be no different.
It is reported that Brazeau left CAP in financial turmoil, with various federal departments claiming "financial irregularities" and large sums of money that were not accounted for in their financial reports. So, some could argue that he left CAP in a mess. That doesn't prevent Lavallee from taking the bull by the horns and getting the situation under control. Yet, at CAP's recent AGM, many AGM delegates and some Board of Directors reported that CAP showed a deficit of nearly 2 million dollars. Yet despite this fact, Lavallee allegedly requested a significant increase to her 6 figure salary at a board meeting preceding the AGM. While some board members were against a raise until the deficit was addressed, it is reported that she nevertheless ended up with a raise.
Now I don't know about other Aboriginal people living off-reserve, but aside from the obvious hypocrisy, what does this say about the usefulness of CAP? Am I getting any value for the tax dollars I use to pay Lavallee's inflated salary? It would be one thing if CAP was in a deficit because it had accomplished a long list of things for Aboriginal peoples living off-reserve, but I fear my tax dollars are being used to fund her trips to Bolivia and her salary increase, as opposed to any tangible improvements for Aboriginal peoples living off-reserve. Where is the self-restraint or the self-sacrifice? How could a real leader inflate their own salary when she has not even secured core funding for her own western affiliates?
If CAP is not already dead, it is surely in the process of a slow, painful death as years now pass without advancing the cause for off-reserve Aboriginal peoples. Can CAP be saved? I think the better question is should it be saved? Is there anyone in Indian country ready and willing to support another NAO that appears to be more concerned about securing enough funding for consultants and staff to administer programs and services, than it does with making any substantive difference for Aboriginal people politically, legally, culturally or otherwise?
I guess that call is for the grass roots people to make.