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onw COLUMNISTS

The Salon is ONW's weekly gathering place where three of Canada's brightest and most respected political strategists come together to analyze national issues affecting Ontario. Rick Anderson is former senior advisor to Reform Party Opposition leader Preston Manning; Anne McGrath was Chief of Staff to the late NDP leader Jack Layton; and Richard Mahoney, former Liberal advisor to Rt. Hon. Paul Martin. 



Richard Mahoney:

I think the story here really is how quickly Idle No More and Chief Spence's protest caught massive public attention, and, from many diverse quarters, support. I think that is less a reflection on the specifics of any particular issue, and more a sense of frustration by First Nations, and many other Canadians, that our governments have failed us.

 

Anne McGrath:

It's been a long time since the concerns of First Nations have been front and centre in the political discussion, so for that alone the hunger strike and the Idle No More protests have been invigorating and exciting. Unfortunately, many hopes are being placed on the meeting this Friday and there will be an inevitable disappointment.

 

Rick Anderson:

Agree with the last point, unrealistic and therefore un-meetable expectations. And we can likely agree the condition of - some - of Canada's aboriginal reserves is probably this country's greatest shame. But I sense we are on different paths regarding much of the rest of what you two have said. Although public policy changes are needed (and partially underway), the solution to this lies mainly with aboriginals, not with government.

 

Richard Mahoney:

Spoken like a true Conservative, Rick. That said, you are at least half right. Solutions must come from within aboriginal communities and their leadership. But governments have their role. Education is a public right and good in Canada. And the average aboriginal child in Canada receives far less support for their education than their non-aboriginal counterpart. That is discrimination and it is something government can fix, and needs to fix, before your goal of a "solution within" can be found.

 

Anne McGrath:

Richard is right to use the term discrimination. There is no legitimate answer to the double standard when it comes to education, child welfare, housing, etc.

I think the government plays both sides on this. On the one hand they say it is the responsibility (and I would say the right) of aboriginal communities to solve problems and manage resources. On the other hand, they introduce and support legislation that interferes in aboriginal affairs and reinforces paternalism such as the financial transparency bill and send in third party managers to reserves in crisis.

 

Rick Anderson:

There are successful reserves in Canada, we should keep in mind. They are ones where there is a local economy, an underpinning to the genuine self-sufficiency we should all want. The problem with some "Idle No More" spokespersons is their tendency to oppose economic development, to oppose sensible reforms like those in C-45, and to look mainly to bigger government handouts. If this were the answer, things would already be great.

 

Richard Mahoney:

Yes there are successful reserve communities, and sensible economic development is key to their success. But hiding behind this "government handouts" line that Conservatives like so much is a cop-out. We need real reforms that can bring FN communities into a partnership with Canada. We also need to help on the education and health care front. The Harper government's decision to cancel the Kelowna accord killed any chance of that - therefore ending an agreement by all governments, representing all political parties, and First Nations leadership, to address that. That's why Stephen Harper bears some specific responsibility today, seven years later.

 

Anne McGrath:

Although I'm no fan of the current Conservative government, they don't have all the blame here. The shame of the situation for aboriginal Canadians is as old as the country. What is exciting and important now is the opportunity to do something that can alter the relationships. It is important not to get sidetracked by old message tracks and to view the decision to meet as an opportunity to start some new processes. I would like to see the meeting be successful and to establish itself as a start. I worry that the meeting will happen and then that will be that. It seems to me that the combination of a strong leader like Chief Atleo and the women- and youth-led energy of the Idle No More movement provide a unique opportunity.


Rick Anderson:

Harper is nobody's timewaster; I think he is serious about practical changes that can accomplish something. Like the bills before the House. Incremental changes which make a positive difference. Beyond that, we need to think about real reforms, including an end to unclear doublespeak. These are not "nations" in the legal sense, these are citizens of Canada. The difference is important. And self-sufficiency and self-governance really have to mean what they say; these are not just slogans. Can Attawapiskat ever be self-sufficient? I doubt it, not there. Historically, it was a seasonal camp. Maybe it's time for some honest talk.


Richard Mahoney:

I think that is right. Anne, the reason that I bring up Kelowna is not simply to criticize the Conservatives for cancelling it, or the NDP for that matter for their role in the Kelowna Accord's demise. It is because it is the right model, and we should start it now. We need provincial governments, First Nations governments and the federal government at the table. And we need them to lead on empowering aboriginal communities to become self-sufficient. There is much more to do, at the community level. But if governments can't do their job or won't do their job and get agreement on broad objectives like health care and education, there isn't much hope for resource agreements, economic development and so on.

Anne McGrath:

There are several hopeful factors right now. I agree with Rick that Mr. Harper is no time-waster and I believe that the House of Commons apology on residential schools was a powerful moment in his tenure. The hunger strike of Chief Spence has been a jarring reminder to many of the tragedy and the seriousness of First Nations issues, and the grassroots mobilization in Idle No More have all combined to offer an unprecedented opportunity, and I can imagine the Prime Minister would want to offer concrete steps. The First Nations leadership has been under a great deal of scrutiny, from the government, from the public, and from their own communities. But leadership is necessary if there is going to be any progress. The leadership needs to be recognized and supported and the government should not be involved in undermining them.  

Rick Anderson:

I don't really agree. As you have both argued, government meddling and mismanagement have been part of the problem. So too has been the acceptance of "communal" (polite word for communist) rights over individual rights. This is especially true re: property ownership and government transfers. The Attawapiskat band receives $35 million per year, roughly $60,000 per family. That's the Canadian average. There is no good excuse for the conditions so many there endure. We need to empower individuals, not collectives. And we need to find a way to permit those empowered individuals to choose where they live, without penalty. Anathema to the current power structure, but important.

You can follow The Salon's strategists on Twitter:

Rick Anderson: @RickAnderson

Anne McGrath: @OttawaAnne

Richard Mahoney: @RicMahoney

Posted date : January 09, 2013
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