CBC News Online | July 14, 2006
Obviously it would be nice to believe that the re-election of Phil Fontaine as the leader of the Assembly of First Nations is a great step forward, that henceforth the problems that have plagued Canada’s native people will be resolved. Nice but nonsense. Sadly, there are no miracle solutions in sight.
That’s not Fontaine's fault. The judgment would be no different if Bill Wilson had been elected national leader of the AFN. The problems of native and non-native in Canadian society are written too deeply in our history for miracle solutions. That will take a long, long time.
For evidence, a good starting point is the letter Prime Minister Stephen Harper wrote to the Calgary Herald just a few days before the opening of the AFN conference. The prime minister could not have been more blunt in drawing a line between himself and the native leadership across the country.
Quite simply, Harper said his new government would oppose "racially divided fisheries programs." That is, quite simply, the allocation of separate quotas of fishing sites to native and non-native fishermen.
Anyone with any imagination can find any number good reasons why such an allocation is good or bad, just or unjust, a violation of history or an accommodation to history. But whatever the judgment, the idea of separate fisheries for native and non-native was an attempt — presumably an honest attempt — to find a solution to a conflict.
It’s worth noting that the division of the fisheries was undertaken by a Conservative government, so Harper cannot blame the demon Liberals. As well, various courts, including the Supreme Court of Canada, have sanctioned preferential access to fisheries for native people.
The fact is that Harper arrived at 24 Sussex Drive with his own particular view of what should be government policy towards native people. That view particularly reflected the attitudes of Tom Flanagan, Harper’s most trusted adviser over the years, who believes Canadian policy toward natives is fundamentally wrong.
Flanagan and Harper believe that the system of native reserves is wrong, that native people should be integrated into the broader Canadian society rather than be encouraged to live on reserves.
That view explains the Harper government’s allocation of $300-million for off-reserve housing for native people in the recent budget — a total reversal of the broad lines of the Kelowna agreement reached by the Paul Martin government, provincial premiers and native people last November, just weeks before the federal election.
But all this is not to make an argument about politics, but rather to illustrate how solutions to native questions have eluded Canada’s political leaders just when they thought they had the problem solved.
The idea of integrating native people into the broader Canadian society is not new. It goes back to the origins of Canada. Pierre Trudeau and Jean Chrétien came up with a model for native policy that is not far removed from that of Harper and Flanagan. They did not say integration but that was the implication. They dropped that one when native leaders rebelled.
It’s not ignorance of native matters or an unwillingness to listen that has hampered successive governments. Brian Mulroney’s Conservative government launched the Royal Commission on Aboriginal People. The commissioners examined native life and native history and produced an exhaustive and exhausting report.
The flaw was that the RCAP report was a massive prescription for government policy in an area where government policy since time immemorial had failed and failed desperately. Anyway, Chrétien, who was then prime minister and whom nobody could fault for lack of sympathy for native people, instinctively distrusted big solutions and politically distrusted big spending in a time of restraint. So RCAP quietly died.
As for the Kelowna agreement reached by Martin and the premiers, the judgment on that must be tentative because it was an agreement that died at the moment Stephen Harper was elected. Kelowna suffered from much the same grandiosity as RCAP.
At the same time, Kelowna had the virtue of broad political approval from the premiers and native leaders, but the agreement had the flaw that it was dependent on a prime minister whose instincts were to spend lots of money to resolve lots of political problems.
Phil Fontaine probably knows as much about the problems of Canada’s native people as anyone. He has served two terms as national leader of the AFN so he must know the disaster of some, just as he knows the remarkable successes of others. He used his victory speech to talk about poverty and to demand more money from the Harper government. What else could he do?
But Fontaine must know that the desperate condition of many of Canada’s native people is not due just to a lack of money. They are people crippled by history, and for those problems the only cure is time, and that remains Canada’s most profound challenge.