There are dark clouds on the immediate horizon for Canada’s First Nations with the increasingly likely election of a Conservative federal government under the leadership of Stephen Harper.
Of all the parties in Parliament, the Conservatives have by far the most regressive, even repressive, approach to Natives.
Harper’s top policy advisor is academic Tom Flanagan, author of the infamous book, First Nations? Second Thoughts. In it, he supports assimilating the Aboriginal population into the mainstream Canadian melting pot.
Flanagan has said Aboriginal peoples are simply immigrants and Europeans are only taking control of the land as they did. He looks at giving different rights to “earlier and later immigrants” as a form of racism. Flanagan considers sovereignty as something the Native peoples never had before Europeans came to Canada.
Flanagan’s influence as the Conservative Party’s Rasputin is the best clue to Tory policy on First Nations, because the party has not spelled out exactly what its approach would be.
Other indications are just as ominous, however. Last week Tory MP Monte Solberg said a Conservative government would not honour the agreements made with the Assembly of First Nations during the Kelowna summit last November. Tearing up the agreement would mean Native communities would lose millions of dollars in funding for daycare, social housing, post-secondary education and health programs.
To be fair, the party quickly rushed out a press release saying the Conservatives “support the objectives, targets, and principles as laid out in the agreement” from Kelowna. But there is no denying that Tory instincts run in a different direction than the other three parties in Parliament.
Despite the stench of corruption and desperation surrounding the tired Liberal government in Ottawa, Paul Martin’s team still sports the most comprehensive Aboriginal policy. Martin himself, during the social-program slashing years of the 1990s, kept increasing budgets for Indian Affairs while every other department was starved of cash. The successful agreement in Kelowna is testament to their efforts, and while they were long overdue, they are better late than never.
For Eeyou Istchee specifically, an important question mark surrounding a change in government would be over the future of the planned nation-to-nation talks on self-government. It is difficult to imagine the Conservative Party following through on these vital negotiations.
The federal New Democratic Party usually sports the most enlightened approach to Native governance, but their policies are not much more than a wish list since the party doesn’t stand a chance of being elected. Nonetheless, in a minority Parliament, the NDP can make a big difference by influencing the direction of a governing party in exchange for its support in the House of Commons.
The NDP under Jack Layton would like to see the recommendations of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples implemented. They do not believe Canada can continue to maintain a colonial system as it has done in the past.
The Bloc Québécois and Gilles Duceppe, while pro-sovereignty and focused on expanding Quebec government powers, also have a fairly progressive approach to Natives. But the Bloc is in the same position as the NDP: eternal opposition. That leaves the devil you know – Paul Martin – as the best bet for First Nations.
With the momentum the Tories have in the polls, however, it appears the best we can hope for is that Canadian voters deny Stephen Harper a majority of seats in Parliament. The other parties could then forestall disaster by defeating anti-Native legislation.
No matter the way one looks at the political weather forecast now, though, the future for First Nations looks stormy.