I’ve been hesitant to write anything on the #IdleNoMore movement. Any comments made by white men have resulted in the authors being called racist, colonial or settlers, with the explicit purpose of denying the individual any agency or legitimacy to comment on something that is an obviously grave, national issue. I feel that while I can’t identify with some uniquely cultural challenges of First Nations people in Canada, as a Canadian I do have a stake in addressing the issue.
The grassroots Aboriginal movement currently risks being co-opted by self-interested, self-(pre)serving Chiefs and perennially angry activists, constantly searching for a cause. Of similar concern is the repeated assertion that the Canadian government is actively engaged in some form of genocide against the Aboriginal people. This claim is abhorrent and minimalizes the plight of those who have suffered through genocide. While historic events were certainly brutal, current governments have acted to address, apologize and do what they can to mitigate the aftershocks of this past injustice. As this inflammatory rhetoric continues to simmer, the window to engage in active dialogue and seek solutions dwindles. While extreme rhetoric grabs the attention of the traditional media and ignites social media, it is of little use to those who actually desire to fix a problem. If this trend continues, it is likely that #IdleNoMore will suffer the same fate as the Occupy movement, which simply became a mouthpiece for a variety of disjointed, poorly expressed opinions. Trying to shame the government into pouring money into a broken system isn’t going to solve anything.
With the release of Deloitte’s audit this week, the movement needs to directly and fully reaffirm or rebuff Chief Theresa Spence. I feel that only the latter will continue to allow the movement to continue to resonate with the majority of Canadians. The evidence of cronyism, mismanagement and favoritism that occurred within the management structure of Attawapiskat continues to grow. The veil of secrecy descended further as news crews intent on interviewing citizens of Attawapiskat were banned from entering the reserve and threatened with arrest. This action is ridiculous and seems to confirm the earlier suggestion that perhaps the citizens of Spence’s community don’t think as highly of her as has been implied. Meanwhile on Turtle Island, Chief Spence is no longer talking to the media, and journalists have been effectively banned from entering the camp established there.
The audit sampled 400 transactions between the First Nation and Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada, from the fiscal year 2005-2006 up until November 30, 2011. Of these 400, only 77 of them were considered to be complete, 245 transactions lacked any documentation and another 40 lacked the sufficient documentation to prove that the action was “in accordance with the terms and conditions of funding agreements.” The audit found sums as large as $303,256.11 for “consultants” lacked any documentation, with similar findings for $225,534.75 spent on “contract employment”. The letter addressed to Chief Spence from the auditors stated that “there is no evidence of due diligence in the use of public funds”. This is disheartening given the desperate state of the residents of Attawapiskat. The questions continue to mount when looking at the published salary list for the officials from the First Nation. An acting band manager expensed $68,397 in two months for travel expenses, which averages to $1139.95 a day. The 22 elected officials of the First Nation made a combined $607,364. The population of Attawapiskat was 1293 persons in 2006. Edmonton’s councillors and mayor made a sum of approximately $1.19 million, with a population of 812,000. How the leadership justifies rewarding themselves so handsomely, when such clear evidence of incompetency exists, leaves me incredulous.
The situation in the community left many members skeptical of the leadership of the Chief, and her unelected, high-earning boyfriend. Justifiably so.
Those with a vested interest in maintaining a broken status-quo have spoken out against the introduction of a number of reforms, including property rights. Property rights are widely heralded as being essential to societal stability and economic growth. Critics argue that these rights, which underpin the institutions of modern democratic society, are vestiges of a colonial past, meant to oppress First Nations. To argue that this new legislation, which is optional for First Nations, further oppresses them is naïve and paternalistic. Chief Michael LeBourdais wrote an excellent piece in the Globe and Mail today on the issue of property rights, discussing the “economic catastrophe” that has resulted from the current lack of property rights, which impacts things as seemingly far removed as the ability to get a credit card. Not all First Nations are wholly dedicated to fulfilling an idealized construct. Some want opportunities for their youth, their businessmen to be able to secure collateral for investment and their families to be able to leave something behind for the next generation. These aren’t fulfillments of a colonial dream or agents of assimilation; they are essential to a decent life.
The status-quo is has clearly failed to provide the majority of First Nations people with a decent standard of living or sufficient opportunity to better their economic reality. While a consensus on this issue is nearly unimaginable at this point in time, dialogue is necessary. A court ruling released today found that Metis and Non-Status Indians are a federal responsibility and a motion filed today by two Alberta First Nations moves for a judicial review of the Conservative government’s budget legislation. The country will be watching for cooperation, not confrontation, as Harper and other Conservative cabinet members meet with Shaun Atleo on the 11th. The government needs to address concerns with their newly legislated changes to the environmental review process, which have been widely criticized. Industry needs to either be more active or more visible in their consultations and dealings with First Nation communities. Similarly, the AFN needs to adopt a realistic approach to negotiating economic reforms in the future and not reject legislation simply because it moves in a new direction.
CC photograph courtesy of Flickr, found here.