The irony of the AFN’s call for an anti-Tory vote

Commentary, Aboriginal Futures, Tom Flanagan

Leaders of the Assembly of First Nations are urging their people to defeat the Conservatives on Oct. 19. Vote Liberal or NDP, is the message, but not Conservative. “We can mitigate the damages by voting for a different government in this upcoming election,” Manitoba Chief Derek Nepinak said.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative government has often been offside with the AFN, starting with the 2006 decision to cancel Paul Martin’s Kelowna Accord.

But it is also true, perhaps counterintuitively in the eyes of many, that this government has reached new heights in dispensing money to First Nations.

Mr. Harper’s dramatic 2008 apology for residential schools was accompanied by large cash outlays. As a Common Experience Payment, the Indian Residential Schools Agreement set aside $1.9-billion for compensation to all those who attended a residential school – $10,000 for the first year and $3,000 for each year thereafter. By 2012, about 80,000 people had received payments without being required to provide evidence that they had suffered any form of abuse. They were compensated simply because they had been there.

As well, the agreement’s Independent Assessment Process provided for additional payments on grounds of sexual, physical or psychological abuse. By 2012, $1.7-billion had been paid out, and the assessment process is expected to continue until 2017.

Another large revenue stream for First Nations was created by the Conservative government’s 2007 changes to the Specific Claims process; Specific Claims are allegations that the federal government has not properly fulfilled treaty agreements or has ignored provisions of the Indian Act. After the process was rejigged in 2007, the rate and generosity of settlements has accelerated.

In fiscal 2013-14, to take one example, the Crown settled 15 claims with a total payout of more than $350-million. That was just for one year, and more than 300 claims remain to be settled. More claims can, and probably will, arise, as the government did not impose any statute of limitations. The total payout will eventually dwarf the roughly $4-billion paid in residential schools compensation.

Then there is Parliament’s 2008 amendment to the Canadian Human Rights Act, which extended coverage to First Nations. This allows aboriginal individuals or organizations to make complaints of discrimination against the federal government. A path-breaking case alleging inadequate federal funding of child-welfare services on reserves is now wending its way through the legal process.

Given the tenor of recent Supreme Court of Canada decisions, it would not be surprising to see the court eventually hold that it has the jurisdiction to review appropriations for First Nations in the federal budget and decide whether they are adequate. Such a decision would be a fiscal motherlode, allowing the courts to take over federal budgeting in the name of equality rights.

And let’s not forget the Harper government’s offer to former AFN national chief Shawn Atleo to put up an additional $1.9-billion for aboriginal education. Mr. Atleo was driven from office and the AFN refused the offer because the government wanted to exercise some residual control over how the money was spent, but its willingness to make large increases in aboriginal spending was again on display.

I am not endorsing the policies that I have described; they all had significant internal problems. But they illustrate beyond doubt that the Harper government has not been stingy with First Nations. In fact, it has been financially generous beyond the standards of any past government, Liberal or Conservative.

Ironic, then, that the AFN should now oppose the Prime Minister so vociferously. Maybe Mr. Harper, a well-known Beatles fan, is humming one of their famous songs, Can’t Buy Me Love.

This op ed was originally published by The Globe and Mail on Monday, July 20, 2015: