After months of thwarted attempts at revealing how much Conservative government spends battling Aboriginal rights and the groups that try to enforce them, NDP MP Romeo Saganash has now turned to the Auditor General of Canada.
On June 12, Saganash sent a letter to Auditor General Michael Ferguson requesting an investigation into the amount of funds the federal government budgets and spends each fiscal year on opposing the status and rights of Aboriginal peoples and defending itself in the courts.
Along with his letter, Saganash included pages of requests that his office had sent to various federal government departments only to be told that the information he was seeking was “not readily available” and therefore would not handed over.
In his letter, Saganash suggests that the government is invoking technical procedures and appeals to delay cases being heard on their merits when fighting these Aboriginal groups with the perhaps intended effect of depleting their financial resources.
The Nation spoke with Saganash to get a better understanding of what he believes is the Conservative government strategy on this issue.
Why do you suspect the Conservatives have made it so difficult to seek out this information?
I believe it is not so much a matter of it being too difficult as it being a convenient excuse to not supply the information. In my Order Paper question, I asked to see the budgeted amount and the actual amount spent. I understand that it might take some work to calculate what each department has spent over the years, but it should be much easier to tell me how much was budgeted – that is a simple line item in a budget to show us. So when I saw their answer, I took it as a signal that this government doesn’t want to tell Canadians the truth in this matter.
TN: Have you been given any explanation as to why this information is “not readily available”?
RS: When answers are given to Order Paper questions, there are no explanations given for the answers or non-answers supplied. Since each department is responsible to reply to their part of the question, each department that did not provide an answer had its own variation on the “not readily available” response. After consulting with colleagues on what next steps I should take to get an answer, I decided to ask the Auditor General to investigate this matter, in order to get an answer, one that all Canadians deserve to see.
TN: When you mention the opposition Aboriginal groups status and rights and their court defences, what specific incidents are you talking about? Northern Gateway? The victims of St. Anne’s Residential School? Elsipogtog First Nation’s fracking battle?
RS: I wish I could say that I was only referring to one or two specific cases, but unfortunately this government’s approach has been to litigate first, second, and always, appealing to the highest level before being forced to comply.
In his report on his visit to Canada last fall, former UN Special Rapporteur James Anaya specifically pointed to Canada’s adversarial approach to Aboriginal and treaty rights, and also pointed out this government “typically seeks the most restrictive interpretation of Aboriginal and treaty rights possible.” When that is the chosen approach of this government, you sadly end up with too many examples to point to.
TN: Are you trying to see what was spent on all of the above?
RS: I am trying to see what the Government of Canada is spending overall, in all cases, on fighting Aboriginal rights, status, title and treaty rights in Canadian courts.
TN: Can you give me some other examples of the government invoking technical procedures and appeals to delay cases being heard on their merits?
RS: Again, the government has typically appealed cases that they have lost, which are the majority of cases, and continued to appeal right to the very end. The rationale they give is that they must appeal to protect the best interests of all Canadians. But given their losing record in these cases, I submit that it would be in the best interest of all Canadians to negotiate and settle these cases, rather than litigate.
A good example of this was the Nuu-Chah-Nulth fishing rights case, which took more than 10 years to work through the courts, with appeal after appeal by the federal government. In the end, think of all the money they spent fighting just that one case, money that could have gone towards implementing the solution the court will now ensure they will have to.
By deciding to take a more conciliatory approach, the government could use all that money being paid to lawyers to fight the inevitable losses they end up with to actually address and solve the problems our communities face.
TN: While it may seem like an obvious question, please explain what the Conservatives have to gain by undermining First Nations peoples?
RS: I believe that a big part of it is that they think it is easier to ignore and fight in courts than it is to negotiate and actually tackle the problems head-on. It’s lazy government; it’s easy to sue and sic the lawyers on Aboriginal governments, that doesn’t take much for a minister to do.
But it takes real work and effort to sit down at a table with Indigenous nations and negotiate treaty rights, title, resource development, education funding, housing or any of the major issues facing our communities. That is even harder when you’ve spent years claiming these problems don’t exist, like the Conservatives did for years regarding the underfunding of First Nations schools. In the end, the Conservatives want to have their cake and eat it too. They are not willing to do the hard work to negotiate with Aboriginal governments and are trying to find the easy way out.
TN: What does this say about the nature of the Conservative government?
RS: When you sit across from members of this Conservative government on a daily basis, you get a good insight into how they view the world. From that experience, part of how they approach these matters is really no different than how they approach others who do not agree with them, whether it be people in the environmental movement, veterans fighting to protect their benefits or seniors speaking up to protect their mail service.
But another part of it is that the majority of their caucus members don’t believe in the very concepts of Aboriginal rights and title and treaty rights. Don’t forget, there are members of this government who were Reform Party members who filibustered and tried to kill the Nisga’a treaty and opposed Aboriginal fishing rights in the late 1990s. So I think that denial of the concept of Aboriginal rights is also part of the equation.