Thursday, March 29, 2012

Federal Budget 2012 - The Battle Lines Have Been Drawn

The Conservative budget was released today with most mainstream political commentators wiping their brows, saying "Phewf, we thought it would be much worse!" People like Kevin O'Leary were asking why the Conservative government didn't go further to open up Canada for international investment. Others were relieved that only 19,200 federal public service jobs would be lost as opposed to the 60,000 that were predicted. Still others were wondering what the streamlined environmental review processes might mean.

The area with which I am most concerned relates to what was and was not in the budget for Indigenous Peoples. I am not surprised by this budget, in fact, it is just about exactly what I predicted it would be. What I am surprised about is how the Assembly of First Nations' National Chief Shawn Atleo could possibly think this was a good budget.

Atleo says: "The investments in education in today's budget indicate that the voices of our youth are perhaps beginning to be heard...". Well, let's look what was and was not provided for First Nation education:

For elementary and secondary education (k-12), approximately $1.5B in extra funding is needed this year to have an education system almost on par with the provinces. This budget only provided $100M for this year, most of which will go to early literacy (and not in our languages).

For post-secondary education (PSE), we have an estimated need of half a billion dollars for this year as we have no less than 10,000 First Nation students on a waiting list to go to university. This budget appears to provide $0 for PSE.

Atleo says that "First Nations will seize this momentum to move forward to real reform and reconciliation". What momentum? According to the documents the AFN provided, over $6.7B is required this year to properly fund k-12 education and address the cumulative shortfall. The Cons provided only 4% of what is actually needed. I fail to see how this is momentum. The current cap on funding is at 2% - this is but a fraction more.

Let's put these numbers into proper perspective. INAC estimates that it will add approximately 45,000 people as status Indians as a result of the Bill C-3 amendment to the Indian Act. It has also estimated that upwards of 50,000 new status Indians will be added because of the new Qalipu band. This is a total of 95,000 new status Indians to be added to the 704,851 INAC's website claims are currently registered. This is an increase in the registered population of approximately 14% through registration alone. Offering an additional 4% of what is actually needed for the current population for education is an insult, but considering the new population, it is no increase at all.

Given that education is a treaty right, this amounts to an overt violation of First Nations treaties and very clear signal that there will be no future of increased, flexible, permanent funding set aside for First Nations education. The fact that no money was set aside for an increase in PSE is a further sign of things to come. The Cons have drawn their line in the sand and NC Atleo continues as if oblivious to the impending battle.

I don't see any "real reform and reconciliation" in a budget that offers $330M for water infrastructure over 2 years when the actual need is $6.578B. This amounts to approximately 5% of what is actually needed. If it cost your family $20,000 to install plumbing in your house to run water and have proper sanitation, what good would $1,000 do if you didn't have the other $19,000? What kind of reform is that? Again, the Conservatives are laughing in the face of the current crisis of poverty in First Nations while NC Atleo praises them for "real reconciliation".

This year the whole world saw first hand what the crisis in First Nation housing looks like. The pictures from Attawapiskat First Nation showed people living in unheated sheds with no running water. The media frenzy which followed shamed Harper into having a Crown-First Nation Gathering that had been promised several times over his years in office, but which never came to fruition. It was Attawapiskat that brought about that "historic" meeting and not NC Atleo, despite claims otherwise.

Yet, not a single cent was dedicated to address the crisis in First Nation housing. What about this lack of funding for housing speaks of reconciliation? The assimilation scheme of starving the Indians off the reserve is well entrenched in Conservative policy, yet Atleo sees this budget as making "important investments".

I can assure you that I am not seeing monsters where non exist. This assimilation plan for Indians is well-documented in government records and has always been considered by INAC as "the final solution". The Cons are just more aggressive in speeding assimilation along. The budget document focuses on "integration" of Aboriginal peoples into Canadian society - as a labour source, as tax payers and as individual property owners. Even the constitutionally protected right of Indigenous peoples to be specifically consulted and accommodated on their Aboriginal and treaty rights is translated as consultation (no accommodation) that will be "integrated" into current regulatory processes.

But let's look at what is really happening. The Indian Act is staying in place, as confirmed at the CFNG and the current level of federal control over First Nations will not only be maintained, but will be dramatically increased with the suite of legislation it intends to impose on First Nations. This budget confirmed what we already heard in the CFNG:

(1) Non-Indians will gain interests in reserve lands in the matrimonial real property legislation;

(2) Cons will transfer all liability for water and sewer on reserve to First Nations without funding to address the increased standards;

(3) First Nation education legislation will impose increased standards and force provincial partnerships while not providing additional funds;

(4) Reserves will be opened up to privatization (ownership by individuals) to allow mass sales of reserve lands and facilitate extractive industry activities on our lands; and

(5) Accountability legislation to impose standards on First Nations leaders not imposed on Members of Parliament.

Again, I am really confused how any of this screams "reconciliation". In fact, this entire suite of legislation violates our inherent rights to be self-determining and violates our constitutionally protected  Aboriginal and treaty rights to govern our own affairs. It also threatens our communally-held traditional lands and current reserve land holdings. It will result in a dumping of liability and no funding to cope with a whole slew of additional regulations and standards that Canada itself can't meet in First Nations now.

In fairness, Atleo did say "First Nations must be at the table on any discussions that could affects our lands, our lives and our rights". Or what? What is Atleo going to do? He certainly has represented ANY kind of threat to the Cons yet, nor has he publicly offered any real resistance to this run-away assimilation train. He also states that he will get clarity of what all this legislation means and ensure First Nations voices are "respected". Really? Our voices have not been during his whole tenure - what makes now any different, except maybe that his election is coming up in July?

The fact is, the AFN knows full well what these proposed pieces of legislation mean as they have already testified before the House and Senate on some of them. The focus should not be in ensuring our voice is "respected", it should be in ensuring that our inherent right to be self-determining is respected, implemented and enforced. Our jurisdiction over our own communities is what needs to be recognized. We don't need 5 more Indian Acts to prescribe how we will live our lives. I don't want my voice to be accommodated in federal legislation - I don't want the federal legislation.

I honestly wish I could find some positive in what NC Atleo is doing on all our behalves, but I just can't. It is not a personal thing, as I don't know him as a person - most of us don't and never will. I don't get to vote in AFN elections, so this is not about voting. I have given the issue a great deal of thought and have spoken to a great many people that I trust about my dilemma in criticizing an organization that is set up to advocate on our behalf. It hurts me to do it, but after much contemplation and soul-searching, I feel like I have no choice.

All we, as grassroots people, have to go by is what Atleo does or does not accomplish for us. The proof is in the outcome and this is not the outcome that will move our Nations forward in decolonizing, healing, rebuilding our languages and cultures and protecting our traditional territories for future generations. While Atleo cannot be blamed for the aggressive assimilation plan of the Cons (and I admit, he has a tough political landscape right now), he is to blame if he does not stand up and actively resist it.

Our people are the ones who live in shacks - now is not the time to tell them their voices are "being heard". Our people are dying pre-mature deaths - now is not the time to promote "reconciliation". Our people see the impending battle - now is not the time to "seek clarity". Our people need a leader - now is not the time to be a politician.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Maybe Oliver Needs a Job in Mining? Curing Conservative Dysfunction

Conservative Minister of Natural Resources Joe Oliver announced this week that amendments to Canada's regulatory process are needed to speed up the approvals of mining and other extractive industry projects. Part of his justification for speeding up approvals is to transform "aboriginal communities' which he considers to be "socially dysfunctional". The cure for this alleged social dysfunction is to take even more oil, gas, minerals, and other resources from their territories at a much faster pace.

As Oliver's heart bled for the poor Indians, he said it was his goal to "give" aboriginals some hope. His plan, in fact, is to "move them from despair to hope" by giving Indians jobs in the extractive industry. I have to agree with Chief Clifton from Gitga'at First Nation that the language was "insulting". I would go further though and say that the language is also consistent with the Conservative's assimilation plan.

Harper made it clear that the objective is to give "individuals" jobs and to keep the Indian Act right where it is and will even impose additional legislation on First Nations to further control our governments and territories. The "problem" as defined by the Conservatives is that we are not fully absorbed into the body politic yet. The problem will never be resolved until Indians are "equal" with Canadians - i.e., have jobs, pay taxes and their communal lands are "open for business" (i.e. resource extraction).

I am always struck when the Conservatives are able to convince the public that the source of the serious housing, water and poverty crisis in First Nations is simply because we don't have jobs. In one line, Oliver is able to discount hundreds of years of brutal colonization and the well-known inter-generational effects of both the historical and ongoing colonial laws and policies imposed on our peoples.

The residential schools system was not an "education policy gone wrong" (Minister Duncan)...

...nor can Harper say (in truth) that Canada has "no history of colonialism".

Canada has met every criteria for genocide against Indigenous peoples, the only issue is that Canada is not likely to be charged with the offence any time soon. This does not make it any less genocidal, nor is specific intent for physical destruction necessary.

The laws, policies and political decisions that led to deaths in residential schools, forced sterilizations of Indigenous women, small pox on blankets, and gruesome scalping laws are some of the most destructive genocidal acts, but today we have children taken from our families at higher rates than residential schools, we have Starlight tours and deaths of our people in police custody, we have courts and judges who put our people in jail at higher rates than Canadians, we have hundreds of murdered and missing Indigenous women and the list goes on.

Colonization hasn't stopped, nor is the reason for homelessness in Attawapiskat, contaminated water in Kashechewan or child suicides in Pikangikum due to someone not having a job in the mining industry.

But let's talk social dysfunction for a minute. Here are some dysfunctional social conditions I have noted over the last few years:

(1) Canada has one of the highest child poverty rates and when compared to 17 peer countries ranked at 13;

(2) Children account for only 22% of the population, but represent 38% of food bank users;

(3) Homeless population in Canada is around 300,000 and 1.7 million struggle with housing affordability. 50% of Canadian population lives in fear of poverty and 49% believe they are 1 paycheck from being poverty stricken.

(4) The "measurable" health-related costs of violence against women in Canada is more than $1.5 billion a year!

(5) Meanwhile, some municipal librarians are making 6 figure salaries.

(6) Harper's Conservatives were thrown out of Parliament for contempt.

(7) Conservatives are now implicated in robo-calls which may have impacted their re-election.

Before Canada starts pointing fingers about our Indigenous Nations being dysfunctional because we don't run to give up our lands in exchange for a mining job, I think politicians better look in their own back yard and clean up their own dysfunction. At least there are historic and ongoing reasons for our poverty - we are managed against our wills by the Canadian government. If Canada can't manage its own affairs without dysfunction, how can it presume to manage ours and not expect the same results?

If there was ever a justification for First Nation jurisdiction over our own lives (aside from sovereignty, treaties, and our right to self-determination) this would be it!

To say that First Nation poverty, cultural trauma, and the inter-generational effects of colonization would be cured by a job in mining is ludicrous. Even just framing the discussion this way presumes that the best First Nations can hope for is a job  - as if we don't own the lands they want to mine. These lands are ours  and it is up to decide to whether we want own, operate or stop mining on our lands. This is the very essence of Indigenous land title and our right to free, informed and prior consent which is now internationally protected under the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).

Oliver should resign as Minister of Natural Resources and get a job in mining - maybe that will cure his dysfunctional mouth.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

AFN Election 2012: Stopping the Assimilation of First Nations in its Tracks

After we all heard the National Chief (NC) of the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) Shawn Atleo give his speech at the Crown-First Nations Gathering (CFNG), it became readily apparent that the 2012 election campaign for the AFN NC had officially begun. Up to this point, Atleo had done little but sing the praises of the Harper Conservatives (Cons). It looked like Atleo and the AFN were following in the political footsteps of former President of the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples (CAP) Patrick Brazeau and hedging their bets that sucking up to the bully would yield better results than standing on our inherent rights.

Two things about this "strategy" (if you can call it that): (1) it may have won Brazeau  a cushy Senate seat (an immediate, individual gain), but it left the grass-roots off-reserve people with nothing but an indebted organization with a horrific reputation as being the mouth piece of the Cons with an anti-First Nation political slant (long-term, community pain); and (2) the organization itself never gained anything in terms of major budget increases, political concessions from the Cons; nor did it advance the rights and interests of off-reserve Aboriginal peoples in any measurable way.

I would have thought, that after all the criticism launched by the AFN at CAP for being so critical towards First Nations peoples, that the AFN itself would never walk down that same political path. Yet, it appears that Atleo, in an attempt to distance himself from former NC Phil Fontaine and make his own mark, decided that selling our souls to the devil would help him do that. It is a naive political strategy that demonstrates Atleo's inexperience in high-stakes politics. He decided to support the Cons as opposed to the Liberals & NDP and decided to follow Harper down his assimilation path instead of participating in concrete social action or stand in defense of our peoples and communities.

Atleo with all his "education" made it his mission to support education - but in a way which ignored the concerns of the treaty chiefs and the many concerns of the grass-roots First Nations peoples. This led to a major rift in the AFN and left regional First Nation organizations with no choice but to publicly denounce Atleo's process. The Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations (FSIN), the Chiefs of Ontario (COO), the Quebec First Nations and more recently the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs (AMC) all stand against Atleo's rogue politics.

To understand the significance of this rift, one must understand how important unity has been for the AFN. The National Indian Brotherhood (NIB) (now AFN) and First Nation politics in general were galvanized in the 1970's when First Nations all across the country were faced with the Liberal's 1969 White Paper which would have abolished the Indian Act, reserves, treaty rights and Indians. The First Nations united in their opposition and defeated the most brazen attempt to assimilate our peoples into oblivion. Since then, the power of unity has defeated the Meech Lake Accord, the First Nations Governance Act, and has also brought attention to our unresolved land issues and discrimination in various Canadian laws. The power of this unity is not to be underestimated.

Atleo, in a few short years has all but destroyed this unity and has, in essence, gone rogue. While Harper exercises fierce dictatorial control over his MPs and uses the politics of fear to control citizens, Atleo  instead opts for a more Lone Ranger approach with similar results. Atleo is advancing his own agenda and according to many Chiefs, he is doing so without properly consulting them. This is a different claim than had Atleo been simply disagreeing with them. The political charge is that he is off making deals, cozying up to Harper, and agreeing to things like National Panels and CFNGs without consulting with the people he is supposed to represent.

This sort of politics is not only ineffective (look at the growing rift), but it seems to me, to be in direct conflict with the AFN's own Charter.

Article 3(a) specifically states that the AFN is supposed to be in the business of "harmonising effective collective and co-operative measures". Agreeing to a national panel on education without consulting with First Nations is not conducive to harmonizing or unifying First Nations on education.

In case this is not clear enough, one need only refer to Article 21 (1) which specifically states that "The National Chief shall have no inherent political authority". So, what power does the NC have?

Any power he has is detailed in Article 21(2) "Any authority the National Chief may have shall derive exclusively and entirely from authority granted from time to time by the First Nations-in-Assembly".

It seems to me then, that Atleo agreeing to a national panel on education, and agreeing to a Joint Action Plan all before seeking the specific direction of the chiefs sounds like he has his own political agenda. The CFNG action plan read like the 1969 White Paper assimilation plan using modern words. Atleo has, in a few rogue steps, turned the Assembly of First Nations into the Assimilation of First Nations.

If what a large number of chiefs are alleging is true, then Atleo has exceeded his political authority and it's time for him to be removed as NC. Even if what they are alleging is not true, the future of First Nations in Canada depends on removing Atleo from office and re-focusing our political strategies and priorities away from one based on federal control and our ultimate assimilation.

First Nations chiefs will have their chance to voice their concerns at the upcoming AFN AGM which will be held in Toronto this July 2012.

Here is the timeline:

- 10 weeks before the AGM, an electoral officer will be appointed.

- 8 weeks before the AGM, the electoral officer will assume office.

- 4 weeks before the election, the electoral officer must submit the names of the candidates for NC to all Chiefs;

- 1 night before the election, he/she must arrange an All Candidates Forum for the AGM;

- The election takes place on the 2nd day of the AGM starting at 9 am.

Here are some of the rules relating to the election for NC:

(1) Candidates must submit their nomination papers to the Electoral officer no earlier than 8 weeks prior to the election and no later than 5 weeks prior;

(2) Each nomination form must be signed by at least 15 Chiefs and at least 8 of them must not be from the same province as the candidate;

(3) In order to be eligible to be a candidate, you must be at least 18 years old, of First Nations ancestry and belong to a First Nation which is a member of the AFN.

(4) Candidates can not spend more than $35,000 for election purposes and must submit a statement of expenses and names of contributors;

NOTE - The Electoral officer can disqualify any candidate who does not participate in All Candidates Forum or does not file expenses;

(5) Chiefs can send proxies to vote in their place;

(6) Anyone who receives less than 15 votes is automatically eliminated;

The winner must receive 60% of the vote and if he/she does not, then the candidate with the lowest vote is automatically eliminated and another vote takes place. Chiefs can go through many rounds of voting to obtain the 60% majority.

So, what does all of this mean for the grass-roots community members? None of us get to vote in these elections. So, what are our options? I think the more we make ourselves aware of what the AFN is doing in our names, the better we will be able to put pressure on our own Chiefs on how to vote. For many years, in many First Nations, Chiefs have been deciding who he/she votes for as NC without ever consulting with the community. It is time for us to make a change and exercise our voices again.

While it is painfully obvious that I do NOT support Atleo in the upcoming election, it is important to note that I do not and will not be publicly supporting any candidate that chooses to put their name forward. I think candidates need to stand on their own past records, their ability to lead and inspire our peoples, and the quality of their election platforms. In other words, I do not believe we should support candidates based on who endorses them. This becomes a popularity contest instead of one which is based on traditional leadership virtues.

If we have learned anything from the Cons dictatorship-style politics, is that we do not want to mimic their politics.

That being said, I am always happy to talk to any candidate who wants to know what I think about their platforms. I think the candidates would be well-advised to talk to lots of people, from a variety of backgrounds, about their platforms and start getting their direction from the people again. If a candidate wants to make AFN relevant, their platforms will have to speak to us - the grass-roots people - as much as they speak to the Chiefs. Free hint: Any platform that is written to speak to the Cons will be as useless as Atleo's.

There are lots of rumours going around about who might put their name forward at this year's election, but we will all have to wait and see who is officially confirmed by the electoral officer. Doug Cuthand, a columnist for the Star Phoenix talks about a couple of these potential candidates:

At the end of the day, it is all just rumour and possibility until the candidates sign on the dotted line and get their nominations from their 15 chiefs.

As the candidates are announced, I will definitely keep track of their platforms and offer commentary on their strengths and weaknesses as they role out. I will also be trying to find out as much as I can about their past political experiences; their individual track records; their political stance and where they stand on specific issues that matter to me, my family, community and Nation. It is my belief that we as First Nations people should all have a vote as to who will be the AFN NC. However, even though I am not permitted to vote, I will still try to have an impact on the results. I think we all have the power to make this election different.

That is not to say that I promote the AFN as "the" vehicle or voice of First Nations, as that inherent authority rests with each Indigenous Nation. However, I do believe that the NIB used to serve a very powerful political and advocacy role in highlighting First Nation issues, bringing international attention to bear, and advocating at the national political level. There is no doubt that AFN has fallen off track in a major way and I don't blame individuals for thinking it is useless and even harmful. I think it is doing far more harm to us now than good. If it stays this way, I will continue to advocate against it.

I think the AFN has the potential to be a useful organization once again but so long as it caters to the will of its funders, it will be no more and no less than what Brazeau was for CAP - the mouthpiece of the Cons. In other words, the AFN will continue to be the First Nation enforcer of the Cons assimilation policies. There are those who think they have political savvy that believe we need to make concessions to make stave off mass budget cuts or further control over our communities. In case they forgot, treaties were our concessions and the Cons are bringing budget cuts and more legislation to control our communities. This political "strategy" based on fear is no plan at all.

Our people, our territories and our futures are not for sale and I am not willing to trade my inherent rights for ANY organization. AFN has a choice - it has to be relevant to First Nations or it will fade into oblivion like CAP did.

In case any of the 600+ Chiefs can't attend the AFN AGM and election, and they are looking for someone to be their voting proxy, try sending one of our million grass-roots folks.