Thursday, June 23, 2011

INAC's "Expert" Panel on First Nation Education - Big Bucks, Zero Results

Back in December of 2009,  Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) (as it then was) announced that it would be putting together an "expert" panel on First Nations education and that the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) would have some say over the mandate of the panel and the appointment of its members. The members of the panel were expected to be announced in early 2011 with a view to having a report in mid-2011.

Up until this announcement, I had seen no call for proposals from INAC and no call from the AFN for educators to put their names forward for consideration. Then, on February 20, 2011 out of the blue, we see a notice posted on the MERX website that three individuals had already been chosen for the panel and were to be paid $200,000 EACH plus hst for a three month contract that was due to end July 31, 2011.

The contract was awarded without tender because INAC felt that no one else other than the three people chosen would be as "uniquely qualified" to conduct a national panel on First Nation education. The three chosen were:

(1) David Hughes, CEO of Pathways to Education Canada, who was chosen to be the Chair of the panel,

(2) George Lafonde, former Vice-Chief of Saskatoon Tribal Council; and

(3) Caroline Krause, who described the present post-secondary funding system for First Nations as "corrupt" and thus offered her "unequivocal support" for Calvin Helin's report "Free to Learn" which advocated for giving education funds directly to students and skip bands altogether. It is no surprise then, how she came to be regarded as an "expert" or chosen for this panel.

This "blue ribbon" panel was to study the issue of First Nation education (once again) and come up with substantive recommendations. Their contracted mandate included the following:

(1) They will be responsible to conduct face-to-face and online engagement activities across Canada to hear from First Nation leaders, parents, students, elders, teachers, provinces, and others with an interest and a view on how to enhance the education system and outcomes of First Nation learners at the elementary and secondary levels.

(2) This will entail organizing and leading eight regional roundtables across Canada and one national roundtable and having key meetings with other stakeholders.

(3) Based on work, the Panel will provide a summary following each roundtable, a progress report to the Minister of INAC and to the National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations mid-way through the process, and they will submit a final panel report with recommendations by July 31, 2011.

The report was to be tabled at the AFN's national assembly in July which is to be held in Moncton, NB this year. This panel received instant criticism from Chiefs all over the country but national Chief Shawn Atleo asked Chiefs to work with this panel despite their concerns.

Despite ongoing concerns expressed by many Chiefs, the AFN stood by the Conservatives and encouraged chiefs to participate. Some chiefs were so upset with AFN that they wanted to meet without AFN present.

Once can hardly blame their feelings given the lack of action on education - which has been a crisis issue since the 1950's, if not earlier. Yet, we are already at June 23, 2011 and from what I understand, there has not been a single community meeting or engagement session held to discuss any of the important issues around First Nation education.

This makes me wonder whether it is even possible for this expert panel to have a report by July 31, 2011 and if so, how such a rushed report would be worth the paper it is written on? Perhaps $200,000 per person was not enough financial incentive to have them conduct any of the work? This money will no doubt be added the the billions already spent on the bureacracy that "manages" First Nations.

Then, last night on APTN National News, it was reported that David Hughes, the Chair of the expert panel had resigned. There was no information reported about whether he had been paid any of the $200,000 under the contract, whether and to what extent he had done any of the work or when he had resigned. Again, no announcement was made by either the AFN or INAC (now ANAC). Ironic that the very government who set up a panel that will make recommendations on how First Nations need to be more accountable with education funding is not very transparent or accountable with its own funds.

What should have been considered an embarrassing fiasco for both INAC and the AFN was turned into a National Aboriginal Day "announcement" that an expert panel on First Nations education was "set to begin". In fact, it was reported that the panel might start as early as "this week". Downplaying the resignation of the former Chair David Hughes, it was quietly noted that the new Chair is now Scott Haldane, the President of the YMCA. Atleo explained that the goal was to have a report sometime "this calendar year" and was promising real "action".

Is it just me, or are we all being presented with smoke and mirrors instead of seeing any real accountability by INAC or the AFN? It boggles my mind that the AFN would continue to prop up the Conservatives when clearly they are not taking any action on our critical issues. In fact, APTN reported that INAC was NOT committing to any action on education and Minister Duncan said INAC was not prepared to simply "write a blank cheque" to address funding inequities.

I think it is time for the Conservatives to practice what they preach and start showing us some accountability. I also think its time for our real leaders to step up and start calling INAC on their sustained lack of action.

Here are some of the questions I want answered:

(1) Was any money paid out under the original MERX contract that was due to be completed on July 31, 2011? If so, how much?

(2) Has a new contract and/or extension of the old contract been made with the current panelists? If so, what are the terms and how much is it for?

(3) If there is a new contract and/or an extension of the old one, why would we enter into yet another contract and/or an extension of the current contract when the original objectives of the first contract were not completed?

(4) What is the real reason why the former chair of the panel resigned? Who choose this Chair and why?

(5) Did the AFN really have any say in the decision to create a panel, the madate of the panel and the membership? Really? Did Atleo choose another non-First Nations person as the chair?

Finally, why is the AFN keeping us in the dark about this critical issue for our people and propping up the Conservatives instead of holding them to account? First Nation leaders are staring to speak up, grass roots citizens are expressing their concerns - is anyone listening?

This situation is starting to look eerily familiar to the CAP-Brazeau affair. While that may have won Brazeau a Senate seat, it did little for the grass roots Aboriginal people who most needed someone to stand up for them.

Trying to cover up a fiasco on First Nation education on National Aboriginal Day has to be one of the most insulting things INAC or the AFN could do to First Nations. I think we deserve a little better than that. At least the Auditor General thought so......

How many more studies do we need to be certain that there is an issue in First Nation education? How many more Auditor General's have to confirm INAC funding inequities before funding is increased?

How much more of this will we allow to happen before the real leaders step forward?

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Shiny New Beads and Trinkets: Old Assimilation Policies Repackaged

There has been a great deal of publicity lately related to all the great work the Conservatives are doing in relation to Aboriginal peoples. Some media outlets have called this a "historic shift" and even gone so far as to characterize the plan as a "sweeping overhaul of reserve life".

While there may be some useful tidbits in the plan, to call it historic or sweeping is misrepresenting what is actually taking place. One must keep in mind that this announcement coincided with the Auditor General's damning report about Canada's gross failure to address conditions of extreme poverty on reserve. In fact, according to Fraser, conditions have even become much worse. INAC has knowingly failed to address "inequities" in funding for post-secondary education, child and family services, housing and many other programs.

Yet, all of this was overshadowed by a strategically-timed joint action plan - anything to take the public's focus off of the stark reality. The fact that the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) took part in this duck and avoid maneuver leaves me questioning the AFN"s ability to effectively advocate on behalf of First Nations. Some have even questioned whether the AFN had any REAL input into the plan given how quickly it came out.

Even if National Chief of AFN Shawn Atleo did have input, that begs the question as to why he would give his blessing to a plan that would leave out critical issues around funding, consultation, First Nation jurisdiction, treaty rights and land claims. All of these issues are significant to the grass roots people, yet nothing has been mentioned about any of them. Similarly, the planned First Nation - Crown Summit also excludes these critical issues - all with Atleo's stamp of approval.

Does any of this signal a significant shift by the Conservatives from their right-wing, pro-assimilation agenda? I would argue that all we are seeing are the same old deal - the exchange of shiny beads and trinkets for our acquiescence or agreement to forgo what makes us strong, independent Nations - our sovereignty, our land and our identity. What follows are some of the reasons why I believe this to be true:

Early Indian Policy:

Early Indian policy included various measures to control, divide and assimilate Indians to finally rid Canada of the "Indian problem".  These included:

(1) Residential schools to remove culture, language and family and community ties from Indian children;
(2) Indian Act provisions which removed Indian rights from Indian women;
(3) Indian Act provisions which incorporated non-Indian women into communities;
(4) Enfranchisement provisions which encouraged Indian men to give up their identities in exchange for education, employment and individual title to reserve lands; and
(5) Indian Act provisions which prohibited lawyers from advocating for Indians in relation to their lands and treaties.

(See: The Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, 1996) [RCAP]

White Paper 1969:

The plan argued that "Indian people must be persuaded" that this was the path to a better life:

(1) Abolish the Indian Act;
(2) End special recognition for First Nations;
(3) Give them individual title to their lands (fee simple);
(4) Funds for economic development;
(5) Full integration into the cultural, social, political and economic life of Canada; and
(6) Removal of constitutional responsibility of federal government for Indians.

We all know how First Nations across the country reacted to this policy - they forcefully rejected it and re-asserted their special status in Canada and their land and treaty rights. Harold Cardinal wrote what came to be known as the Red Paper outlining the special rights of Indians in Canada. While Canada backed off of this policy, very little changed in regards to addressing First Nation poverty and the resolution of their Aboriginal and treaty rights, land claims and self-government.

RCAP provides a detailed history of the development of Indian policy over time and the rights held by First Nations. Their overall recommendation was to move forward with the resolution of land claims, recognition and implementation of treaties and the negotiation of self-government agreements. Canada's delayed, non-committal response "Gathering Strength" came to be known as "Gathering Dust" for the lack of action on Canada's part.

Then along comes Tom Flanagan, who, in his book "First Nations? Second Thoughts" argued that since First Nations were "primitive", "wasteful" and "destructive" that they should not be entitled to self-governing rights, special tax exemptions or federal funding. In his view, First Nations need to "evolve" and become more like other Canadians. This was pretty much the same message that he provided in his second book: "Beyond the Indian Act: Restoring Aboriginal Property Rights".

His plan involved the following:

(1) "abandon" "primitive" "communist fantasies" about communal land;
(2) implement a system of individual property rights (i.e., mortgage or sell to non-Indians);
(2) repeal the Indian Act;
(4) shut down the reserves;
(3) encourage education and workforce participation; and
(4) assimilate into the larger Canadian population.

This assimilation plan of Flanagan's raised a great deal of controversy, but was not unique. Others, like Alan Cairns had also advocated for assimilation, albeit less overtly. Since then, many right-wingers have joined the call for the assimilation of First Nations including people like Frances Widdowson and Dale Gibson, to name a few. In fact, Gibson wrote a report entitled "A New Look at Canadian Indian Policy: Respect the Collective, Promote the Individual" which focuses on individual success and material wealth over communal interests.

Not surprising then, that Tom Flanagan became an advisor to Stephen Harper or that the Conservatives are now putting into place the gradual, assimilatory plan which focuses on individual wealth which has been advocated by folks like Flanagan and Gibson.

Has anything changed since the early years of Indian policy-making? Does what the Conservatives propose now amount to a significant departure from the assimilatory agenda of the 1969 White Paper? I would argue that it does not. The following overview of the Conservative agenda seems only to confirm my original assessment:

2011 Conservative Election Platform:

(1) Expand adult education in the north (no funding for k-12 or university);
(2) Increase accountability of First Nations through legislation (no funding or recognition of jurisdiction);
(3) Avoided dealing with reserve infrastructure like water and housing (but agreed to fix fuel tanks);
(4) Avoided dealing with Aboriginal and treaty rights (but First Nations can sit on hunting advisory panel);
(5) Avoided dealing with land claims (but will promote development of reserve lands through legislation).

Conservative - AFN Joint Action Plan:

(1) Education = Joint Process on k-12 education (expert panel that still has not produced any reports);
(2) Focus on "success of individuals" through education;
(2) Increase First Nation accountability and transparency;
(3) Task force to promote economic development to benefit "all Canadians";
(4) Improve relations.

You will notice there are no funding commitments, measurables or key action words that commit to any specific action. It is important to note here that the AFN has publicly come out in support of this action plan.

First Nation - Crown Summit:

Then there is the promise of a First Nations-Crown Summit meeting that is supposed to take place this fall. I won't hold my breath given that Harper has promised such a meeting with First Nation leaders twice in his five years as Prime Minister to no avail.

What is being promised at this summit reads eerily like the election platform, joint action plan and other assimilatory policies of the past:

(1) The agenda is "deliberately narrow" and will not revisit the substantive commitments in Kelowna;
(2) The agenda includes education;
(3) governance and
(4) economic development.

There is to be no discussion about treaties, land claims, self-government or the funding inequities in essential social services.

So, if you go back and look at the fundamental aspects of assimilation - being educated, economic development and turning reserves into individual parcels of land, you will see that not much has changed from the 1800's to the 1969 White Paper, to what is now being advanced. The fact that the Conservatives have a majority in the House and Senate means that will be able to rush through any law or policy they choose. Having the AFN on side only helps the Conservatives legitimize the process.

All of this brings me back to my original concern that the AFN is now so far away from what it was originally intended to be when it was the National Indian Brotherhood, that I am left wondering whether it has the capacity to think beyond the organization's own priorities related to funding and staffing, and advocate on behalf of First Nations and their citizens.

It seems to me that far too many people are worrying about their own jobs and making deals than they are about taking the risks inherent in standing up for that which our ancestors died to protect - our sovereignty, lands and identities.

It's about time we called the Conservatives on their deplorable record and highlight the facts brought forward by their own auditor general - that chronic and inequitable funding has made conditions on First Nations worse. We need to stand behind our treaties, protect our territories from further encroachment and go back to focusing on the needs of our future generations instead of focusing on ourselves. Any future "joint" plans MUST engage First Nations as a third order of government and as true partners and reflect the fundamentals of the treaty relationship, First Nations jurisdiction and the integrity of our territories.

Don't be fooled by shiny new beads and trinkets - it is really the same old assimilation policy of control and division repackaged with new titles like "Joint Action Plans", "Expert Panels" and "Joint Processes" - other words for "we are buying into our assimilation".

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Secret Agent Harper: Conservative Spy Games in Indian Country

Ok, I have to admit that had anyone told me that the Conservative government's first order of business would be to pay half a million dollars to hire private detectives to spy on First Nations, I might have viewed them with some level of skepticism. After all, I am not naive enough to think that the Conservatives are not doing things we don't know about, however, what is being reported sounds more like the plot for a conspiracy theory movie than reality in a liberal democratic country like Canada.

Yet, it appears to be true. The Conservatives put a contract out for tender to hire private detectives to investigate First Nation band elections and will pay up to $500,000.

My mind is still spinning. Honestly, I thought their last contract for tender to make Metis people CSA approved was a little on the paternalistic, controlling side, but this goes to the very core of the relationship between First Nations and the Crown. Canada is still treating First Nations as though they are enemies of the state - forgetting of course that this is OUR land and that we have agreed to share the land on the basis of our treaties. Nothing in our treaties provided for Canada to divide, control and assimilate us and they certainly do not provide for espionage in our own communities.

The Conservatives have made their move - they are challenging our inherent right to be self-determining and may even hire First Nations people to be the ones to engage in these activities. After all, so many of our people are living so far below the poverty line that Canada ranks well below not only developed countries but even some developing ones. Canada's own Auditor General has criticized Canada for failing to address First Nation poverty.

Therefore, it would not be much of a shock for Canada to be able to find someone hungry enough to take one of these contracts.

But have you noticed that any time the Conservatives get bad press for their abysmal failure with regard to First Nations, that all of sudden there is news about alleged corruption in First Nations? Time and time again, the Conservatives try to duck and avoid accountability for their lack of action by vilifying our people and turning Canadians against us.

We are supposed to be rebuilding our relationship in a the post-apology era. Remember how Harper apologized on behalf of all Canadians for the assimilatory attitudes and ideology of cultural superiority towards First Nations? Canada continue to fail to live up to the honour of the crown and its fiduciary duty towards First Nations under the guise of empty apologies.

We even get labelled as "insurgents" and "terrorists" if any of our impoverished conditions make it to the media.

First Nations crisis in water becomes news, so we see allegations of lack of accountability in First Nations. Canada withdraws funding for Sisters in Spirit - more allegations of over-spending in First Nations. Now, Canada's failure to address inequality in funding for First Nations is made public by their own Auditor General and surprise - we see a contract to hire PI's (aka spies) to infiltrate our communities and look out for corruption in our elections.

How hypocritical given the fact that the Conservatives were BOOTED from Parliament for lying - failing to be open, honest and accountable to the people.

Now, if they continue to act this way would it be acceptable for First Nations to infiltrate the federal bureaucracy and spy on them to see if they are acting corrupt? I dare say we would be jailed faster than we already are - and that is saying alot given that all of our people - men, women and youth are over-represented in jail as it is. It should be noted that this is NOT because we are more likely to be corrupt or criminal, but is in part a symptom not only of extreme poverty but also of ongoing discrimination in the entire justice system.

It is bad enough that the Conservatives want to invade our private space online and "correct" our  "misinformed" thoughts and conversations, but to seriously pay people to infiltrate our communities without our knowledge and consent to monitor our potential to engage in election corruption is taking their role too far. I can only assume that this contract is meant for some of Harper's retired police officers who ran in the election and lost - seeing as all the Senate seats were given away to conservative losers already.

You would never know that INAC was in a collaborative process with the Atlantic Policy Congress of First Nation Chiefs (APCFNC) and the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs (AMC) on electoral reforms under the Indian Act. I doubt very much they were apprised of this spy-for-hire contract. Time and again, the Conservatives criticize First Nations for being "overly aggressive" when dealing with the government, while at the same time stabs them in the back every single time First Nations do work with them.

Our ancestors taught us to be proud of our identity and culture and to protect our communities. If we don't stand up for ourselves now, what are we telling our children who will be watching and learning. If the suicide of our children is not enough to make us take notice, I am not sure what is. I don't know about any of my readers, but the thought of Conservative spies crawling around any of the communities I love and cherish totally creeps me out.

I think it is about time that ALL of our leaders stood up and said enough - regardless of where their national or regional organisations sit on the issue. If they wait for the women in our communities to do it - we will - but they might not like it when the power shifts permanently in our direction.

UPDATE: No sooner did I post this blog, than the following article was posted which claims that documents from ATIP (Access to Information and Privacy) reveal that the Conservatives started their spying campaign against First Nations as soon as they came into power:

I have not seen the actual documents, so I can speak to the veracity of this report - except to say, I may check my phone for bugs tonight...