The Crown-First Nations Gathering: a parting of the ways

OVER THE PAST few years I’ve had some off-the-record discussions with senior federal bureaucrats and politicians, folks who are in a position to know of what they speak. In such company the prospect of the politically practicable invariably rises to the river’s surface, through implication or, more often, inferences. Here the word “inference” alludes to the immovable fact that even in those cases where the spirit is willing, the flesh is bound to cabinet confidence and other such protocols of discretion. Hearing what I’ve heard, and seeing what I’ve seen, I’m not at all surprised by the outcome of the recent Crown-First Nation Gathering in Ottawa.

Back in June 2011, I had a conversation about the then-just-announced Canada-First Nations Joint Action Plan with a member of the Conservative Party of Canada. From this and other like sources I was given to understand that the Government had positioned itself to do some very bold and transformative work on the Aboriginal file, work of a character and scope well beyond the Martin government’s “unserious” (as it is generally regarded in Conservative circles) five-billion-dollar Kelowna Accord. Importantly entrusted with this piece of news, I nodded and otherwise emoted the requisite intrigue. In the near background of this conversation, which took place in the Gatineau headquarters of the recently re-named Aboriginal Affairs, was the third-year anniversary of the 2008 residential school apology. Even as late as this, the Government of Canada was cashing in the stored political capital of this apology and the related Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement. The word historic gets a lot of stick play, but in these instances no other term quite gets the idea across. Say what you will: one nonetheless can understand why the Harper family bring out the photos and momentos every time company comes a-calling — and that they do so without ever mentioning the awkward fact that they were purchased on the credit of the previous Liberal government of Paul Martin.

Mr. Martin was in the news post-gathering, excoriating the current Prime Minister by charging that his government “has nothing concrete to say.” The contrast between these two Prime Ministers is as sharp as one could cite, Paul Martin a policy wonk and advocate of government activism, Stephen Harper a tactical and cautious fellow skeptical of activist government. It was Martin who introduced, as Finance Minister, the forward-looking and bold policy experiment of service delivery through the arms-length private foundation; it was Harper who has put that experiment to a probable final rest. What for one man is bold is for another man simply old. According to the math of the Harper government, a departmental top-up here and a policy tweak there adds up to substantive change which will exceed the prospects of the Kelowna Accord. Here then is the flavour of Kool-Aid being served at this moment in the 10 Wellington Street cafeteria. As far as your humble servant has been able to tease out the matter, near everyone in a decision-making role has imbibed it and rather likes the taste. The menu therefore is likely to remain fixed so long as are the current occupants.

The curious fact of this Crown-First Nations affair is the degree to which it foregrounds the present non-eventfulness of Crown-First Nations affairs. Is it really over four years ago that the five-billion-dollar Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement came into force? And have over three years really passed since the apology was made to the former Indian residential school children? Both Shawn Atleo and Stephen Harper seem to be in the shadow of these undertakings. Or, to use a more fitting metaphor, held passively within their currents. For the ugly and shameful history of the Indian Residential School System — and both ugly and shame-filled it was — could be repudiated and remediated only with active commitments to renewed relationships and materially different modes of conduct. To that end we presumably were throwing our canoes into a new stream, and to reinforce the point everyone adopted the language of Newness. Then, somewhere in the midst of this New Relationship journey, new bodies took up the paddles, and the trip presumably continued. Or maybe it didn’t. That’s the bit that is uncertain.

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