Governor General David Johnston delivered the Speech from the Throne October 16 to plot the political road that Canada’s Conservative government intends to pave over the last two years of its mandate.
The speech featured numerous references to the history and challenges of Canada’s First Nations. The Nation asked Romeo Saganash, the NDP MP for Abitibi–Baie-James–Nunavik–Eeyou, for his thoughts on the speech and what it might mean for his constituents.
The Nation: What is your reaction to the comment about how Canada’s European settlers “were undaunted. They dared to seize the moment that history offered. Pioneers, then few in number, reached across a vast continent. They forged an independent country where none would have otherwise existed?”
Romeo Saganash: I am disappointed that this important speech ignored basic historical facts about the founding nations of this country. But I am also reminded that it was only four years ago at the G20 meetings that Prime Minister Harper said that Canada has no history of colonialism, which we know is historically inaccurate. I hope that the Prime Minister would apologize for ignoring the history of the First Peoples of this land. You can’t build a relationship with any group of people while denying their basic history and statements like those only add to the mistrust that many Indigenous peoples have of this government.
TN: They also made reference to the anniversary of the Royal Proclamation (1763) and its promise to respect the rights of Indigenous people and their relationship with the Crown. Do you believe that the federal government is keeping the promises made at that time, in the spirit that it was written? What should they be doing? What would the NDP like to see the Conservatives do for Canada’s Aboriginal people?
RS: This government is not keeping those promises and in some cases, they seem to be going out of their way to avoid keeping those promises. It is not just me saying this; UN Special Rapporteur James Anaya raised many concerns regarding the government’s conduct towards and funding of Aboriginal groups in Canada. He encouraged Canada to take a “less adversarial, position-based approach” in regards to Aboriginal and treaty rights. We in the NDP agree, which is why we have been calling on the government to take a true nation-to-nation approach for years now.
TN: How is this failing the large number of Indigenous peoples in your riding?
RS: The Harper Conservatives are failing all people in my riding by not learning from our experiences in Eeyou Istchee and all of northern Quebec. We have achieved great things for all people in our region through the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement and the Paix des Braves. While other parts of Canada seek to learn from what we have done here, the Conservatives seem determined to continue to ignore our good work. In doing so, they seem determined to repeat mistakes made by past governments, and that promises to do harm to all people in our region.
TN: In terms of Native people in your riding, was there anything in particular in the speech that you see being rolled out to change the lives of those individuals or to impact them in a positive way? In terms of the environment? Development?
RS: Unfortunately I did not see anything like that. There was nothing to address the housing shortages in the region. There was nothing to help lower the cost of groceries in the region. There was nothing to help improve peoples’ day-to-day lives. The only thing that the Conservatives promised our region was to make it a bit cheaper to watch “Here Comes Honey Boo-Boo,” but that is cold comfort when all these issues of greater importance are ignored.
TN: While the Cree have their own systems for how education is delivered to youth, the rest of the Indigenous people within your riding do not. The Conservatives said that they “will continue working with First Nations to develop stronger, more effective and more accountable on-reserve education systems.” What does this mean to you?
RS: Sadly, the Conservatives will continue with their same approach to education, which has been firmly rejected by both the Assembly of First Nations and the Assembly of First Nations of Quebec and Labrador. Special Rapporteur Anaya raised his concerns about the Conservatives’ approach on their proposed First Nations Education Act and the lack of consultation used to create it. The Conservatives need to address the chronic underfunding of First Nations students across Canada, yet Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt has been clear that no new money will come with this bill. You cannot make a better education system for anyone if you ignore the needs of those it is supposed to serve and deny the resources needed to make it work.
TN: In terms of the treatment of Aboriginal women in this country, they said that “Aboriginal women are disproportionately the victims of violent crime and that our government will renew its efforts to address the issue of missing and murdered Aboriginal women.” How do you interpret this?
RS: I welcome the words from the Conservatives, but I am waiting to see if they will be followed by actions. If those actions are the same than they have been taken so far, then I have to doubt how serious they are. If they decide to change course and act on the NDP’s long-standing call for a national inquiry for missing and murdered Aboriginal women, I will welcome it with open arms. Native Women’s Association of Canada, the AFN, Anaya and the premiers of Canada have all called for a national inquiry and it is about time that the Conservatives make it happen.
TN: Will the people of your region actually benefit from the job-creation plans that are mentioned in the speech?
RS: There is no job-creation plan on offer, despite the fact that unemployment has increased by more than 270,000 and more than 1.3 million Canadians are unemployed under Harper’s watch. The government previously announced it would go ahead with the Canada Job Grant and even paid millions of dollars in ads to publicize it, despite opposition from the provinces, including Quebec. In order for that program to
work, the government will need partners in the provinces. Without that, there is no program to speak of. Also, there were no measures to tackle rising youth unemployment.
TN: What else was there in the speech that you took particular note of when it came to the people that you represent?
RS: I had hoped to hear that the Conservatives were going to tackle the ongoing corruption scandal in the Senate, yet they said next to nothing on the matter. Throughout the summer, my constituents have been expressing their concern and disgust about this scandal and they were expecting to see action. The government’s silence speaks volumes about its view of the Senate and just gives more reason for why we should abolish this institution.