A closer inspection of the budget “promises” reveals very real threats to First Nations treaty rights, natural resources and their right to trade. All of this for the alleged “benefit of Canadians”, but it won't be Canadians who benefit - it will be large corporate enterprises which hoard their profits. In the US alone, corporations are sitting on trillions in cash - not benefiting anyone but their CEOs. Harper's economic plan doesn't just hurt First Nations - it also hurts Canadians.
In a strategically-designed media event, National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) Shawn Atleo together with Prime Minister Harper and Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada (AANDC) Minister Bernard Valcourt announced that legislation to totally revamp education in First Nations would be imposed by Canada after all – despite the resistance by the majority of Chiefs and First Nations citizens in Canada.
Amidst much secrecy and blue-dot identification systems to exclude “bad Indians”, Atleo and Harper ran roughshod over the treaty right to education. Despite Atleo's words that AFN is not a treaty organization and that he cannot negotiate treaty rights - he has done just that. Harper, with the help of Atleo, is trying to lure First Nations into trading their treaty right to education for a legislated program – subject to government whims and budgets.
Their joint announcement on First Nation Control of First Nation Education Act as the “answer” to the education crisis in First Nations is an illusion. Despite the build-up and announcement day fanfare, there was nothing substantive put on the table for First Nation education this year except more paternalistic federal legislation. It must be remembered that this legislation is an old promise that has been announced and re-announced many times over in major Conservative speeches. The rest of Atleo-Harper's announcement amounted to a promise of future monies which are supposed to flow AFTER Harper’s term of office. Kelowna has shown us how empty “future monies” are to First Nations.
Not only is this elusive, top-secret, federally-controlled legislation nothing new – but it is also being used as the primary trinket in other sections of the budget. For example, under the Education section, First Nations are promised First Nation education legislation. Under Jobs, they are promised First Nation education legislation. Under Skills Training, they are promised First Nation education legislation. So, once again First Nations really don’t get anything out the federal budget 2014 despite the fact that it’s our lands and resources that subsidize the many other budgetary promises.
The Conservative Budget 2014 reveals that the only promises we can take to bank are those which reinforce the federal blockade against First Nation treaties, resources and trading rights. Make no mistake, Harper’s veiled threats in his Speech from the Throne are also being implemented in his Budget 2014. Harper, with the help of “willing partners” like Atleo, are asking First Nations to voluntarily give up their rights in exchange for money. The problem here is that this is like asking a single mom living on social assistance if she wants food for her children. Of course she needs food for her children, but that doesn't mean she should be bullied into giving up her rights. Many of our communities are under duress to accept these take-it or leave-it offers. With no money to fight in court and no courts where we can get an unbiased decision, this leaves very few options for First Nations to protect their rights.
There is incredible economic pressure put on First Nations to assimilate, integrate and otherwise surrender their rights. The budget indicates that Conservatives will provide $166 million over two years to help strengthen First Nation fishing enterprises, which sounds promising – until you read further. The money is allocated for the Atlantic and Pacific commercial fisheries – however, the funds are to be used to “integrate First Nation fishing enterprises into existing commercial fisheries”. First Nations have Aboriginal, treaty, and inherent rights to trade in fish – these rights are constitutionally and internationally protected. Canadians do NOT have a constitutional right to fish and trade in fish. What he is saying is that millions will be put into forcing First Nations to give up their rights or give up their means of subsistence. This is not voluntary – it’s coercive.
We should not be surprised given that this comes from a government whose members have advocated against what they call “race-based” fishing rights.
This underlying threat against First Nations rights appears throughout the budget and especially in relation to natural resources. The Harper government promises to “ensure” the extraction of natural resources and, as promised in his Throne from the Speech, he will “protect” these resources by beefing up protective infrastructure around them – including roads, bridges, and the means to protect this infrastructure. This is why you see billions invested in “energy infrastructure development” as well as money for law enforcement.
Similarly, our Indigenous right to trade is also being attacked despite the many thousands of years of trading activities amongst our Indigenous Nations. For centuries, we have defended and protected our territories and trading routes. While the colonial governments erected barriers to the free flow of trade between Indigenous Nations - like the Canada-US border, the Jay Treaty promised that we would not be molested in our traditional travel and trade activities. Similarly, nation-based territories span multiple provincial borders and our sovereignty, rights and laws have never been superseded by provincial laws.
Our trading and business activities have long been a part of our traditional economies - but Harper wants absolute control over our economies. Self-sufficient Nations don't mix with Harper's ideal of assimilated Indians and surrendered resources.
Harper is now trying to force us give up our trading and business activities and surrender it to the federal and provincial governments under the guise of law and order. Canada has had a long history of criminalizing our traditional activities like hunting, fishing, and even travelling off-reserve to engage in trade. This continues today where the majority of court cases defending our Aboriginal and treaty rights are within the context of criminal or regulatory offences.
In Budget 2014, Harper is pre-empting our rights and making some of our trade and business illegal. He is targeting online casinos and making them subject to terrorism legislation - knowing that outside of the provinces, it's only First Nations that are venturing into online casinos. Similarly, he is taking one of our most lucrative traditional activities – the growing, manufacture and trade in tobacco - and eliminating First Nations trade as an “anti-terrorism” and “anti-contraband” measure. The only exceptions, if any, will be through tightly-controlled federal or provincial restrictions. Harper's federal blockade preventing us from accessing our own resources is getting stronger - chipping away at our future self-sufficiency.
So, just to be clear – Budget 2014 promises that if we agree to give up our Aboriginal, treaty and inherent rights to the $650 billion dollars (over the next 10 years) in natural resources that we own, Harper will give us some skills training for some low-level labour jobs with the extractive industry. That is why so many "employers" were present at the Atleo-Harper education announcement. As Harper continues to cut funding to First Nations and blockade them from their own resources, he hopes to make First Nations reliant on large corporations for hand-outs.
Harper may feign innocence and claim that he is not forcing us to do anything and that all of these promises are for “willing partners” - but the definition of willing is without duress. Yet in Harper's world, willing partners are those who want to eat, drink clean water, have an education and want to stay out of jail.
Willing partner or jail… willing partner or jail… willing partner or jail. What would you choose?
First Nations are already over-incarcerated and we know where this Budget 2014 path is heading. If we don’t act soon, it won't just be First Nations who fill the shiny new prisons - Canadians are also lose the rest of their democratic rights and freedoms. How much more will Canadians take - from CSEC spying on all our cell communications in airports, CSIS and RCMP using terrorism to spy on social workers and teachers, to changes to the elections act to ensure we can never get rid of the Conservatives. We all need fresh air, clean water and farmable lands to live - Canadian or First Nation. We can't eat gold or nuclear waste.
It’s time we got real about Harper’s intentions and helped First Nations defend their rights. This could be Canadians’ last best chance to protect their own children from a life sentence in one of Harper’s jails for the crime of subsistence and protecting our lands and waters.