Indian Industry Cronyism

Former Justice Minister David Lametti’s departure from government and immediate acceptance into an expensive law firm that makes millions from indigenous issues is a recent example of what has long […]
Published on February 16, 2024

Former Justice Minister David Lametti’s departure from government and immediate acceptance into an expensive law firm that makes millions from indigenous issues is a recent example of what has long been called “The Indian Industry” at work. The fact that a member of the firm, Perry Bellegarde, former Grand Chief of the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) greased the wheels to bring Lametti into the expensive firm makes it the perfect example.

It is unknown who first coined the term “The Indian Industry.” Many indigenous and non-indigenous writers have used the term over the decades. Indigenous author, Calvin Helin made liberal use of the term in “Dances With Dependency” as did Cree writer, Harold Johnson, in “Firewater- How Alcohol is Killing My People”

However, it was Frances Widdowson and Albert Howard’s important 2009  book “Disrobing The Aboriginal Industry” that first examined the Indian Industry in detail.

The authors chose to use the term “Aboriginal Industry”, perhaps for reasons of politeness, but they are describing the Indian Industry. They tell in detail  how extensive it has become in Canada. Entire universities, law firms and virtually all Canadian institutions have become largely dependent on the money sloshing around within it. Almost all of that money comes in one way or another from taxpayers.

But they note the supreme irony that the Indian Industry is not improving the lot of the very people it is supposed to be helping – Canada’s marginalized and dependent indigenous underclass:

“Despite the billions of dollars devoted to aboriginal causes, Native people in Canada continue to suffer all the symptoms of a marginalized existence – high rates of substance abuse, violence, poverty. Disrobing the Aboriginal Industry argues that the policies proposed to address these problems – land claims and self government – are in fact contributing to their entrenchment.”

However, “Disrobing” was written in 2009, and since the Trudeau Liberals took over in 2015 the money flowing into the Indian Industry has increased dramatically in volume. In fact, that money flow, and the enormous indigenous contingent liabilities that now total $76,000,000,000 are growing so quickly – seven times higher since Trudeau took over – that the parliamentary budget officer has raised the alarm. Canada’s economic future is being compromised.

It isn’t only indigenous contingent liabilities – money owed for indigenous claims – that have grown so alarmingly, it is all indigenous spending. Reports from the Fraser Institute keep track of the shocking increases in total indigenous spending since the Trudeau Liberals took power. It is fair to say that the truly frightening federal government deficits in recent years occurred largely because of this extra indigenous spending.

And it isn’t only the largesse of the Trudeau government that has dumped money into the Indian Industry. Since 2015 it has also been the residential school bonanza. Clever lobbyists have been able to extract tens of billions of dollars from taxpayers by making highly exaggerated claims that residential schools were places of horror, where priests tortured, murdered and secretly buried thousands of indigenous children. These claims are nonsense. Although it is completely true that the residential school system was deeply flawed, and that many indigenous children were badly hurt by their residential school experience, it is also true that many received educations they would otherwise have been denied. But, more to the point, there is no evidence that even one child was murdered, or secretly buried during the entire history of residential schools. Despite that, baseless claims of clandestine deaths and secret burials have worked very well for everyone involved in the Indian Industry. Residential schools have become the Indian Industry’s single biggest money earner.

But, as Widdowson and Howard noted years ago, the Indian Industry has done nothing to solve what has always been called Canada’s “Indian problem” – namely that the great majority of Canada’s indigenous people remain far behind the mainstream on every social indicator. They are the least healthy, worst educated, most incarcerated, shortest living of any demographic by far.

They were that way before 2015, and they remain that way now. The Indian Industry, and the astounding amounts of money poured into it since 2015 haven’t changed those depressing numbers one bit.

A recent CBC investigative report on the dismal conditions at the St. Theresa Point reserve in Manitoba is a case in point. It is one of Canada’s hundreds of totally dependent reserves. Families there of as many as 23 people per house live in dilapidated housing, in a community that is almost totally unemployed and dependent. The increased money flow since 2015 appears to have only made dependency and all of its related problems – addiction, crime, domestic violence – worse.

So, if the huge marginalized and dependent indigenous underclass does not benefit from all that money that changes hands inside the Indian Industry who is benefiting?

It is people like David Lametti and Perry Bellegarde, and their law firms, universities, etc. – none of whom need special help.

And here is the second irony: The Indian Industry feeds on the human misery on display at communities like St. Theresa Point.

It needs that misery to continue to keep the money flowing.

This is not to suggest that any of the people and institutions that are part of it are deliberately perpetuating poverty, or doing anything illegal. They aren’t. They are simply picking up all of the free money our elected representatives and courts throw into the Indian Industry every day. They pick it up because we put it there.

It is probably not fair to single out David Lametti and Perry Bellegarde for their participation in this obscene waste of taxpayer money that is the Indian Industry. They are just two of many enterprising such people who have come before them, and many who will come after them. They probably convince themselves that they are doing something useful. They aren’t. They are part of an Indian Industry that fleeces taxpayers, while pretending to be solving the indigenous underclass problem, while making it worse. At a certain point, will Canadians grow tired of this game?

Because it has become abundantly clear that the federal indigenous policy that has developed over decades is a total failure. While privileged indigenous people who don’t need special attention are benefitting spectacularly, the indigenous people who do need the help are becoming more helpless and dependent all the time. The huge increase in the money dumped into uneconomic communities, like St. Theresa Point, is making things worse, not better. It is keeping young people, who should be moving to job centres, trapped in hopeless communities.

Renowned American economist and philosopher Thomas Sowell argues convincingly that simply giving money to chronically dependent people makes things worse, not better. I’m sure that Mr. Lametti and Mr. Bellegarde don’t want that to happen, but it is. And it is the Indian Industry that is making them wealthy that is doing it.

At some point the entire Indian Industry, with its racist Indian Act and brutal reserve system, will come to an end. Indigenous people living on Indian reserves now comprise only 1% of the Canadian population. Despite high birth rates on reserves, more and more reserve residents are moving away from them. By most measures only 25-40% of status Indians now live on reserves, and that percentage steadily falls.

Meanwhile, immigrants are steadily flowing into Canada. According to some estimates, Canada might have a population of 100 million by the end of the century. The percentage of the population living on reserves will become far less than 1%. Maintaining a completely separate system and bureaucracy for one tiny segment of the population will make less and less sense – especially to those millions of new Canadians, who don’t feel that they owe any special debt to indigenous people.

But while this natural process works itself out, the Indian Industry, now armed with the deeply divisive United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), is doing permanent damage to the country. We see that process now playing out in British Columbia, where their provincial version of UNDRIP- DRIPA – is wreaking havoc on their natural resources industry. It has become not only a virtual indigenous veto on any mining, pipeline or development project, it is now directly threatening basic landowner rights. In what is much like Chicago during the days of the Mafia, indigenous leaders all demand their “cut” before any project can proceed. This harmful process is spreading all across Canada, now that Canada has foolishly adopted UNDRIP.

And, in what is a perfect illustration of how the Indian Industry works, Perry Bellegard, as AFN Grand Chief, lobbied the government to bring in UNDRIP, David Lamerti, as Justice Minister, brought it in, and now Bellegrde and Lametti and their law firm benefit from it financially. Meanwhile, the taxpayer pays, and the marginalized and dependent indigenous majority remains marginalized and dependent.

Isn’t it time to end this farce? People who need education, and assistance to move to job centres should get that help. But pretending that making privileged people like David Lametti and Perry Bellegarde wealthier by dumping endless amounts of cash into Indian Industry cronyism is somehow good for indigenous people is nuts.

It isn’t. It’s bad for them, and it’s bad for Canada.


Brian Giesbrecht, retired judge, is a Senior Fellow at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.

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