Friday, April 20, 2012

Gatherings, Budgets & Elections: When Do First Nations Children Become a Priority?

I have been watching and listening with interest over the last few weeks about what issues the media outlets have been featuring, as well as what federal, provincial and First Nation politicians have been speaking about. Despite the fact that some very important court rulings have come out which were in favour of First Nations peoples, they seem to have gone largely unnoticed. Similarly, there have been some pretty significant funding cuts to First Nations communities as well as various First Nations organizations, yet the political world has been all but silent on the issue.

This makes me wonder how far gone our current political system must be if we can't celebrate minor victories or use those victories to start pushing back against the Harper Conservatives' (Cons) assimilatory agenda. The so-called Crown-First Nation Gathering (CFNG) was supposed to result in what the National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) Shawn Atleo called "re-setting the relationship". In his words, this meeting, together with the most recent federal budget, amounted to the kind of "momentum" that indicated Harper was hearing the voices of our people. That is a delusion of epic porportions.


The CFNG was nothing more than Harper confirming the Con's position vis-a-vis First Nations: control and assimilation. Harper confirmed that the Indian Act would stay and even confirmed that new legislation would be imposed on our First Nations which would exact even more federal and soon-to-be provincial control over our communities. This legislation will also dump more liability on our communities and no funding. There are no less than 6 pieces of legislation speeding through the House and Senate or will soon be introduced. The only re-setting of the relationship that happened at the CFNG was that the feds took back their paternalistic control of "Indian Affairs" with little resistance from Atleo.

Federal Budget:

The federal budget was no surprise at all for us grassroots community members. A long term conservative told me that Harper's Cons would never give any additional funds to First Nations communities or organizations and that the best they could "hope" for were minor increases in one area off-set by decreases in another - as the ultimate goal was "integration". This is a fancy new word for assimilation, but since Tom Flanagan wore that word out, no one wants to call it what it is anymore.

The prediction given my that conservative MIB has proven to be true as the federal budget offered ZERO for housing, ZERO for post-secondary education and ZERO for child and family services. What little was offered is countered by First Nation population growth, inflation, the cumulative effect of years of chronic underfunding, and increases in federal bureaucrat salaries and training costs. The pittance given for education amounted to 4% of what was actually needed - this is hardly a "re-setting" the relationship, except but backwards.

AFN Election:

Now we have the AFN election to look forward to in July. Campaigning started at the CFNG and Atleo has been on a whirlwind speaking tour all across the country ever since. He has been downplaying the effect of the disastrous federal budget; ignoring the fact that nothing came out of the National Panel on Education; is being silent on the issue of so many pieces of legislation being rushed through the House and Senate; and opting instead, to speak about reconciliation. All the attention now seems to be on the upcoming election as opposed to what is happening all around the AFN.

The Reality:

If we relied exclusively on sound bites from Atleo, we would never know that the First Nation Statistical Institute, National Aboriginal Health Organization, or the National Centre for First Nations Governance were having all their funding cut and must close their doors. I am not saying that these cuts are good or bad, but how are we as grassroots supposed to know? What did these organizations do or not do for First Nations? Why is the AFN and others silent? How come no one is even talking about it?

We also wouldn't know that the Native Women's Association of Canada and Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami had 40% of their health funds cut. There was a small press release about AFN's health funding being cut by 40%, but little more than that. What about the individual First Nations who are reporting that their band funding agreements (BFAs) with Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) have been reduced by millions of dollars? Or the fact that INAC has been indicating to First Nations that cuts of 5% and 10% will occur over the next two years to their BFAs? Why is no one explaining this to community members?

Forced "Integration":

The Cons are making good on their promise to not increase funding for essential services and to force our integration into "Canadian society" under the guise of equality, reconciliation, jobs and mortgages. We know they are bullies, we know they have no intention of addressing chronic underfunding let alone recognizing and respecting our treaties, Aboriginal title to our traditional territories, or our inherent right to be self-determining. We also know their plan - (1) increase controls over us through legislation, prisons and child welfare; (2) increase access to our lands and resources through legislation and minimizing our rights and (3) speed up our assimilation through legislation and funding incentives for "willing partners". When will the AFN adjust their strategy and share that with communities? We don't all have to agree, but we should at least be able to discuss our concerns.

The Cons are very good at using financial incentives and disincentives to get the "Indians" to do what they want. Play ball and you might get a Senate seat, a Queen's Jubilee Award, a plush job on some panel, board, commission, port authority, or tribunal. Keeping quiet might mean that only part of your organizational funding will be cut - but make no doubt, it will still be cut. Don't play ball and you could lose all your organizational funding, be vilified in the House of Commons and the media, or be monitored not only by CSIS, but also by INAC's new not-so-covert spy group who spend our money spying on Indigenous women advocates. If you don't act as a "willing partner" there will be no photo-ops, dinners at the PM's house, or lucrative corporate gigs. You will not get special mention in PM speeches or have him attend your events.

But none of those carrots have any meaning, none are lasting and they only accrue to individuals. None of those tokens are helpful for our Nation-building priorities. So, while I have said time and again Canada needs to make a policy choice of getting out of the business of trying to assimilate us, similarly our leaders need to decide whether they stand on their sovereignty and protect our lands nad peoples or whether they will take their chances on INAC's integration policies and the few trinkets offered in return.

In all of this political mess, when do the children become a priority? What about the blatant discrimination against our Indigenous women at the Pickton inquiry? Why are we not celebrating the small victories we have and use those to create our own momentum and start pushing back against Cons' politics? What's the worse that can happen? More funding cuts? How bad does it have to get before we stand up? Our people need to hear their leaders act on their behalf, not make political deals behind closed doors. I'll tell you who is standing up - grassroots people and First Nations communities.

Chief Simon v. INAC

Does anyone recall hearing about INAC trying to reduce the social assistance amounts for First Nations in New Brunswick? Chief Jesse Simon on behalf of Elsipogtog First Nation and the Mi'kmaw First Nations in New Brunswick challenged that heavy-handed federal decision. They applied for an interlocutory injunction (an order from the court) to stop INAC from implementing a decision the Minister made to force First Nations to reduce their social assistance levels to provincial levels. The court noted that this decision was being imposed on a community that already confronts "severe poverty" where 85% of residents are on social assistance.

The Chiefs had previously passed a motion stating they would not be part of assisting INAC in implementing cuts to social welfare programs. They refused to give in to INAC pressure and even vowed legal action if necessary. The court noted that the Chiefs were "justifiably annoyed" that no consultations had taken place and that INAC was going to impose this policy regardless of what the Chiefs said and letters from INAC confirmed this. The difference would be approximately $300 per month less for individual recipients if they used provincial levels, whereas some would lose all their income assistance, like those that live off-reserve or who have to live with others on reserve.

The judge held: "In my view, the estimated decline in income assistance rates under the Policy and the potential for ineligibility will cause emotional and psychological stress amounting to irreparable harm for some Recipients. Individuals who are reliant on income assistance are especially vulnerable even to small changes in the resources available to meet their basic needs". Therefore the judge granted the injunction which prevents INAC from reducing social assistance amounts in New Brunswick until a court has a chance to hear the whole case.

Why has there not been much media coverage or AFN commentary on this case? This issue, while not flashy like a national panel or CFNG, impacts the daily quality of life of many grassroots First Nations peoples in New Brunswick. That is not to say that we should all be focused on social assistance as a means of addressing our Nation-building and decolonization efforts, but the disastrous effects of long-term federal control, the theft of our lands and resources, and the genocidal actions committed against our people has led to such extreme poverty, that the issue merits attention - especially when chronically under-funded First Nations are threatened with even further cuts.

First Nations Child and Family Caring Society v. INAC

Or perhaps some of you have heard of this case? It is a decision that came from the federal court on April 18, 2012. It is a case that challenges the chronic and severe underfunding of child welfare services for First Nations children living on reserve. Cindy Blackstock, who heads the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society (FNCFCS) has been championing this issue for years now. She is adamant that First Nations children, the most vulnerable in our society, should not receive less funding simply because they are First Nations peoples. Her tireless efforts, passion and dedication to the children resulted in her filing a complaint with the Canadian Human Rights Commission (CHRC) for discrimination.

Blackstock alleged that Canada funds First Nations child welfare at rates far below those of the provinces and that this is discrimination. The CHRC forwarded the complaint to the Tribunal for consideration, but INAC kept trying to find ways to have the complaint thrown out. One of INAC's arguments convinced the Tribunal to do just that. They successfully argued that since First Nations were the only group which receive child welfare funds from the feds, there was no comparator group and thus no discrimination.

The federal court considered the Tribunal's decision and found that it was "unreasonable" and that it in fact erred in law. In the court's opinion, "the Tribunal applied a rigid and formalaic interpretation of the provision - one that is inconsistent with the search for substantive equality mandated by the Canadian Human Rights Act and Canada's equality jurisprudence." What the court is referring to here is the difference between formal and substantive equality. Formal equality means treating everyone the exact same. Substantive equality means providing people with equal opportunity taking into account their differences, many of which are beyond their control.

First Nations are provided with significantly less funding than non-First Nations children in the range of 22%. Some of the services that would prevent children from being removed in the first place are not funded at all. This means that a "disproportionate number of First Nations children are removed from their homes, thus perpetuating the legacy of the residential school system". This has resulted in upwards of 30-40% of all children in care being Aboriginal, despite only being 4% of the total population.

Canada has refused to act despite being aware of the problem and being presented with studies which prove it. Even INAC's own website noted that the high rate of First Nation children in care reflects a lack of prevention services. Finding the Tribunal decision to be unfair and unreasonable, the federal court ordered the Tribunal to rehear the case with a new set of Tribunal members.

While this is a small, interim victory, it means a great deal to First Nations children in care. Federal, provincial and First Nation leaders should be making this a priority issue to be addressed instead of litigated and should at least be talking about the solutions to chronic underfunding with First Nations communities and in the media. We need to be informing our grassroots, building our collective capacity and at least talking about the issues covered in the Simon and FNSFCS cases.

First Nations include everyone:

First Nations include not just Chief and Council, not just well-known First Nation business men or national leaders, but also include those grassroots citizens who live in poverty on social assistance, those who are over-represented in jails, and those who are over-represented in the child welfare system. We cannot forget about our most vulnerable simply because they are out of sight. How many of our citizens were lost to our Nations by the 60's scoop forced adoptions? How many live homeless on the streets of major cities? How many more hundreds of our Indigenous women need to go murdered and missing? Some of youth are forced to sit on waiting lists that are over 10,000 students long hoping for a chance at post-secondary education. Some of our families live in sheds without running water or heat. Where is the action for them?

We Need an Emergency Plan:

We have a crisis of poverty on our hands which requires an immediate action plan that involves the federal, provincial and First Nations governments. We don't need any more studies, panels or commissions - we need action. No one wants to talk about Kelowna and that is fine, but we need an intervention of that magnitude to just deal with the immediate crisis which affects many (not all) of our First Nations.

If I hear another politician stand up and talk about reconciliation or how mining will be the cure for all our woes, I think I might burst. Destroying our lands to provide short-term jobs will never cure the generations of illness caused by past and current colonization. Landing a consulting job with a timber company won't bring back our languages once they are gone. Owning an acre of land in fee simple and having a house with a mortgage won't revive our traditional laws, governing systems and values.

Canada needs to halt its genocidal, assimilatory laws and policies now and national First Nations leaders need to start acting on their responsibility to stand up for those who can't. If the AFN can't come up with a better strategy, they will start to become less and less relevant to not only regional First Nation organizations but to the rising number of grassroots activists who are not going to take much more inaction.

None of us are a "success" until all of our men, women, children, elderly, and the forgotten ones are back under our jurisdiction, protection and love. We suffer collectively as Nations and prosper collectively as Nations.

If any of our leaders need some help, I know a few hundred thousand grassroots people who have unique skills, ideas and aspirations for the future that are well-grounded in our diverse traditional languages, laws, beliefs, and values. Try reaching out. Decolonization is not easy, but it is easier together.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Low Blows, Threats and Sideswipes - Nothing Can Silence Grassroots First Nations

Welal'in, Woliwon, Nia:wen, Chi Miigwetch, and thank you to all the First Nations people who took the time to write me letters, call me, come visit me in person, or who sent e-mails, Tweets and/or commented on my blog posts, news articles and media. I know how crazy politics makes people feel; how confusing the many conflicting reports, positions and media stories can be; and how hopeless it might feel when you think no one hears your voice.

I lived my whole life as an Indigenous women, a Mi'kmaw, on the outside. I was denied my Indian status for 40 years because of the gender of my grandmother. I was denied band membership for 40 years because my band didn't want to include my family, or families like us. I was denied a voice at the local, regional, provincial, and national First Nation political levels. I know, however, that this is a function of colonization and Canada's control over our communities.

Because of this exclusion, I was never able to take my Mi'kmaw identity or that of my children's for granted. I was always at risk of losing it forever due to some new law, regulation or band rule that could exclude us for any number of reasons. I therefore followed the lead of my brothers and sisters and exercised my voice in whatever  venue I could to stand up for our traditional Indigenous identities. This included off-reserve Aboriginal organizations, native friendship centres, Aboriginal women's groups and First Nations organizations.

In the past, I have been kicked out of First Nation political meetings for being too young, for being a woman, for being a non-status Indian, for living off-reserve, or for allegedly not knowing anything about politics. You name it and I have experienced it. I have been forced to sit at the back of the room (if allowed in at all) and have been called every name in the book. This was all because I was exercising my voice - something my father told me was critically important to the well-being of the Mi'kmaq and for all Indigenous peoples.

Nevertheless, this used to really hurt me - a sort of hurt that I can't even explain. It hurt my spirit but I could also feel it deep inside my chest, like a painful pressure that would not go away. It didn't matter how many times my family explained that these people were just angry, disillusioned, hurting or bitter, every single rejection of my identity or my voice created a scar on my heart. I didn't fully understand the concept of colonization at the time.

What I found very confusing was that as I got more involved in Indigenous issues and exercised my voice in a variety of forums, provincial and federal government officials as well as lawyers would treat me the same way that some First Nations politicians did. I was told I could not attend meetings where we were negotiating fishing rights or employment programs for off-reserve Aboriginal peoples because I was too young, I was not really an Indian, I was not an elected official, I had no "expertise", I had no education, I was not a lawyer and so on and so on. There were times when the words used around the table were so vicious, that it took everything in me not to cry.

I used to think that crying would somehow disqualify me from any hope of ever having a real voice in the political, legal, cultural and social issues affecting the Mi'kmaw Nation. I thought that crying would prove that Indigenous women should not be around the table talking politics. I used to wonder if my family encouraged me to attend meetings, protests and all those hard negotiations when I was little just to help me develop a tough outer shell. Its hard to say now, but I will admit, that although I did not cry at the negotiating table, I was crying on the inside.

It seemed like I was not man enough, old enough, educated enough or Indian enough for any of the players around the table. This might explain my ongoing obsession with politics, law and getting an education. I figured maybe they would all run out of reasons if I just addressed them all. At the time, I was still thinking that it was my many deficiencies that were at fault.

I was raised to believe that my purpose in life was to live an honourable life as a Mi'kmaw and do everything in my power to protect that way of life for future generations. I don't know any other way of being or thinking in this world. People can say I have no right to speak because I am an Indigenous woman but I will still speak. Some might say, my opinions don't count because I am not a Chief, but I will still share them. Some might even say that there is no room in First Nations politics for critique, but I will still offer it. Regardless of how many low blows, threats or cowardly sideswipes people might take at me, I have no choice but to keep exercising my voice.

How could I possibly back down when I am so fortunate as to have a warm house, clean running water, healthy food to eat and a good paying job? What excuse could I use to stop advocating on behalf of our grassroots people given that I am so lucky to have both a traditional education (Mi'kmaw teachings) and a formal one (university). Not all of our people are so lucky - many of them don't even have enough hope to survive until tomorrow. I have seen the toll this takes on family members, friends and community members when all hope is lost - depression, addiction, violence, and even suicide.

I don't have the luxury of fading into the background because some Senator, MP, Chief or right-wing lunatic wants to threaten me into silence. What kind of warrior would I be if I did that? If my ancestors can survive scalping laws, residential schools and forced sterilizations, I can survive a little political heat. One of the benefits of my education is that I have also come to learn that we all suffer from being colonized and that some of us are not as far along the road to decolonizing.

Every time someone tells me I am only a section 6(2) Indian and not a real Indian (like presumably a section 6(1)(a) Indian) - I know that is colonization talking. I know that those who exclude off-reserve members, discriminate against Indigenous women or prioritize individual wealth over communal well-being, often don't realize how deeply embedded colonial thinking can be. Decolonization is so important in order to get the colonizer out of our heads once and for all and to build our resistance to Canada's never-ending attempts to assimilate us legally, politically, culturally and spiritually.

Take for example the fact that Canada always demands that we, as Indigenous peoples, speak with "one voice". This is part of their racializing us into one generic category of "Indian". The legal and political category of Indian ignores our very diverse Indigenous Nations, territories, knowledges, languages, cultures, beliefs and practices. We have lived on Turtle Island since time immemorial and never did we ever speak with one voice. We had strategic alliances between individuals Nations when it was mutually beneficial and at other times we went to war to defend our peoples and our territories. The Mohawks have their own voice, as do the Mi'kmaq, the Cree and many others.

I haven't studied or researched one Indigenous Nation yet that did not allow their citizens to be included in the decision-making process, to speak their minds, and have their voices heard and incorporated - all in different ways. Traditionally, some Indigenous Nations were so committed to the principle of exercising the voice of the people and respecting the different political visions and objectives that an entire community could separate into two, to allow both groups to pursue their own objectives, but still within the larger Nation. So when I hear our own people demanding that we all speak with one voice, I shiver at the thought of how we might unify ourselves into oblivion instead of protecting our inherent differences which make us who were are as Indigenous Nations.

I know that it was Canada that imposed these discriminatory laws and concepts on us, excluded our women, changed our leadership to be top down and male-dominated, but we have a choice. We can open our eyes and make the changes we want for our peoples. It won't be easy and the government backlash might even seem intolerable at times, but we have an obligation to give a voice back to our grassroots Indigenous peoples. Our ancestors did not give up their lives so that a few hundred Indigenous peoples could speak for the rest of us. Every single Indigenous person in every Indigenous Nation deserves to be heard. They are entitled to express their pain and frustration at slow progress and entitled to be critical about the current political relationship that is simply not working. They don't need to have Phd's, law degrees or be officially appointed as "critics" to do so.

Grassroots Indigenous peoples hold all the power and yet their views and critiques are often ignored or downplayed. We expect them to be there when our leaders call for a day of action or to stop a pipeline or halt mining - but how often do leaders take the time to listen to them? What about all of our children trapped in the child welfare system, our men and women caught in the prison system or lost on streets in major cities? How many of our leaders have visited a homeless shelter for Native men and heard their stories of pain and their desires to make their communities better? Instead, our grassroots get to see some of their leaders from afar, addressing government officials or corporate Canada in fancy dinners or speaking events.

Over time, I have noticed that many First Nations leaders have come to see the colonization project for the destructive force that it is, and some of those same chiefs that kicked me out of meetings when I was younger are now my good friends. I have also had the privilege of working with many, many First Nations communities and leaders on issues of critical importance to our peoples and have developed great working relationships. They have come to realize that we are on this journey together and all I am trying to do is help and be a part of the solution. Sadly, there remain some on the national political scene who have not moved on and still treat Indigenous women and grassroots peoples like our opinions don't count.

So, my best advice to those individuals who seek to deny me exercising my voice or would deny the voices of other grassroots Indigenous peoples, you can stop with all the insults, taunts, cowardly sideswipes and threats - because the power of the people is where it is at and the sooner you get on board, the faster we can get on with resisting Canada's aggressive assimilatory attacks and re-asserting our sovereignty together.