What is one to make of the sound and fury of the past week in the world of Canada’s native people?
The country’s most famous hunger striker has declined to declare victory and moved the aspirational goal posts after successfully hijacking the Prime Minister’s schedule. Canadians are divided as to whether she is a Northern Ontario Mother Teresa or an incompetent small town administrator on a highly publicized weight loss program.
The Idle No More movement has seen demonstrations across the land, so far peaceful and no sign as of peaking. Yet Idle No More has no coherent program or leadership, and indeed is founded upon a rejection of such elements. Surfacing spokespeople demand a shifting grab bag of change.
The Indian establishment is fractured. The nominal leadership for the Assembly of First Nations has met with the Prime Minister with no tangible results. Numerous other chiefs reject that process, challenge their elected grand chief and darkly threaten serious civil disorder.
Treaty negotiations across the country are stalled. On-reserve poverty reigns in spite of immense public expenditures. Cries of “genocide” and “colonialism” rive the air.
And to top it all, a federal judge has issued a ruling effectively doubling the number of legally recognized Indians in Canada. One wag responded by suggesting we should just declare everyone an Indian and the whole country a reserve. Then none of us would have to pay taxes any more.
How to parse this chain of events? Let us start with Chief Theresa Spence. Were her reserve truly a sovereign nation, it would clearly be called a failed state. The waste of money, inadequacies of governance and favouritism have been so clearly documented as now to be common parlance. That said, her people continue to suffer dreadfully and this must be addressed.
But the Chief herself is a spent force. The more forcefully the spotlight shines on her the more rapidly her credibility will melt in the heat.
On to other elements.
Idle No More will have a similar transience. Do we remember Occupy Wall Street? Yes, vaguely, but that is all. Did it make a difference? Sadly no, even if it was blessed at the time even by Bank of Canada Governor Mark Carney, who agreed the concerns were legitimate. Too few on Wall Street have suffered for the pain they inflicted on the many in order to realize immense profits for the few.
The concerns of Idle No More are legitimate, too. But the movement shares the weaknesses of Occupy: no coherent leadership, no defined program, no institutional continuity. It is nothing more than the most recent demonstration of the power of social media, fated to dwindle away as did its predecessor. The only real question is whether in the process some true damage to persons, property or the economy is caused, at which point sympathy will be lost as well.
Which brings us to the chiefs. The first point is that Idle No More is a direct cri de coeur , a commentary by ordinary Indian people on the legitimacy of their leaders. And on a great many reserves that point is so well taken. As the cynical saying goes, the chief’s driveway is always paved.
All over the world, when you put large powers into the hands of small governments, you are looking for waste and corruption and extended family control using outside taxpayers’ money. The average reserve population in Canada is well under 1,000, mostly young. If the Indian people had to rely only on the chiefs they would be in trouble. Fortunately they can also rely upon a deep well of sympathy and concern among Canadians generally, which could be the key to eventual progress.
The chiefs, via the AFN, have just released eight points of demand. Some are sensible, such as guarantees for ongoing high-level attention. This is essential. The problems are so deep and complex that they require sustained Prime Minsterial authority for real progress.
Some are to be expected, such as the call for lots more money.
Some are half-right. One is the call for a school on every reserve. Of course every child needs access to good schooling, and in isolated situations it has to be on the reserve. But reserve schools as currently managed are a well-known betrayal of their children. They are interfered with politically and find staff almost impossible to keep. When kids go to provincial schools they generally fare better. But when the government came up with a plan to create Indian-managed school boards to take the politics out of the existing situation, the chiefs shot it down as they do with every perceived threat to their power.
The AFN has also demanded resource sharing. Good idea, but it needs the provinces, which own the resources.
One of the demands is straight nonsense. The idea of required consultation with Indians on government legislation that affects all Canadians equally cannot be taken seriously.
Some chiefs threaten to blockade the country next week. This will not be progress. It will harm their cause and undermine the rule of law.
And so it goes. The judge’s creation of about 600,000 new Indians will, of course, be appealed for years. In the end, even if jurisdiction is confirmed, it need not be exercised. After all, thanks to not being Indians, Métis have done much better. Though you never know with this government. It is in the process of inventing up to 70,000 new Indians in Newfoundland (I am not making this up) with a new annual bill for medical and educational in the hundreds of millions of dollars.
Treaty negotiations? The situation is a disgrace. In British Columbia, the main locus for modern treaties, 20 years and a full $1-billion in negotiating costs has produced exactly two new treaties, with maybe two or three more in the near term. And there are almost 200 B.C. bands. I have sat for almost four years across from governments on the Indian side of one of these tables and I can report that the governments (not their representatives at the table, who are powerless) are negotiating in bad faith.
What is the way out of this dark pit? I conclude with two points.
The first is to say again: unless the Prime Minster gets deeply into this – the greatest moral challenge in Canadian politics – little progress will be made. The whole rotten system is suffering from a marked deficit of attention and imagination and determination.
The second is that we have spent way too much time and treasure on chiefs and not nearly enough on Indians. I make this central point in my book, A New Look at Canadian Indian Policy. The subtitle tells the story: “Respect the Collective; Promote the Individual.”
Start sending much less money to the chiefs and divert it to individuals to use for their families. Let the chiefs tax it back if they can.
Give individuals the resources for mobility, which means both cash and above all, education. Half of status Indians have already voted with their feet and left the reserves for a better life. The reserves can be a fortress, but they can also be a prison.
And pay the provinces to deliver the many social programs that they do reasonably well for non-Indians, such as health and welfare. Take the management away from Indian Affairs.
Upon every confused sea, a sailor needs a guiding star. The individual is the fixed point here. Follow that and we will make a safe harbour.