If you thought the debate over creationism versus natural selection was simply about the origin of the species, you’d be wrong. According to the plans being talked up by Indian and Northern Affairs Minister Chuck Strahl, the federal government is once again playing God in order to pick the winners and losers among Native communities across Canada.
The winners will benefit from $1.4 billion in increased government largesse – funding for better infrastructure, housing schools, clinics and, especially, to help communities strike economic development deals with outside businesses. The losers? They can make do with the little they have now, and pray for a miracle.
“I do think we have to reward excellence,” Strahl said of his plan to CBC News. “For one thing, you know, you don’t want to reward mediocrity or, certainly you don’t want to reward something that’s been counterproductive.”
On June 4, Strahl outlined the so-called market principles that will now guide First Nations funding during an Ottawa public policy forum called “Prosperity through Partnerships: A National Workshop Exploring Partnership Opportunities to Promote Aboriginal Economic Participation.” The $500 million reserved for basic infrastructure – drinking and wastewater facilities, health and policing facilities, roads and bridges – is, he said, “essential to attract investment and to link those communities with the mainstream economy.”
In other words, it’s about funding better infrastructures for those regions that outside corporations see as profitable investment opportunities. And Minister Strahl provided a helpful example close to his own heart, pointing to his subsidies for oil and gas initiatives on Native lands in Saskatchewan.
“Governments at all levels are working collaboratively as never before,” Strahl told the conference. “The private sector is seizing the tremendous potential of new partnerships with Aboriginal communities.”
The message, stripped of the flowery embroidery, is clear: Native communities will qualify for long-overdue funding for basic needs if they show themselves to be sufficiently collaborative with the private sector – the usual array of oil, logging or mining firms hungry for the valuable natural resources on some Native lands.
Those who resist – one thinks of Barriere Lake, for example – or the many communities that have few resources or are geographically remote, will be labelled “losers” and continue to lead a threadbare existence. One wouldn’t want to reward “mediocrity”, as Strahl so bluntly put it. Those communities don’t deserve to be part of the “mainstream” economy.
Of course, most “successful” First Nations communities are that way for the same reasons that non-Native communities become prosperous: they have access to and control over their resources, natural or otherwise, that jumpstart an economy and build the social infrastructure that in turn helps create more success. Unfortunately, the majority of First Nations in Canada have been cut off from the lands that sustained them historically, were long deprived of the basic government supports that non-Native communities take for granted, and dealt with disastrous cultural upheaval under the residential-school system.
What that history makes clear is that most struggling First Nations need comprehensive land-claim settlements and the control over resources that come with them. But that’s not on the table for Minister Strahl, not by a long shot. His reaction to the landmark Nisga’a treaty in northern B.C. a decade ago was telling. “First of all it creates a state within a state, an idea which I think the Bloc Québécois would find fairly palatable,” he said in 1999. “This is sovereignty association in the heart of British Columbia.”
It’s an attitude that has evidently failed to evolve since that period. In May, Strahl snubbed an important conference of the Aboriginal Land Claims Coalition in Ottawa, where a laboriously developed land-claims implementation policy was to be discussed. After promising to appear as a keynote speaker, Strahl ducked out at the last minute claiming a personal reason, before turning up to announce funding for a highway in the Yukon, infuriating the Yukon chiefs who had travelled thousand of kilometres to see and speak with the minister.
At the “partnership” conference, Strahl glossed over all that, noting that Prime Minister Harper had apologized for residential-school abuses last year, before returning to his preferred themes of blaming the predictable results of that history on poor governance practices of the Native communities he doesn’t think make the grade.
As Phil Fontaine, the retiring chief of the Assembly of First Nations, put it, “Just last year, June 11, 2008, we were told by the prime minister that the days of unilateral, arbitrary decisions on our behalf [were] over. And those attitudes that resulted in the residential-school experience had no place in Canada. And this smacks of more of the same. It won’t work.”
In sum, Strahl’s new initiative amounts to the same old carrot and stick: give away resource wealth to outside interests and the government will sprinkle a little of the infrastructure funding that it should have been providing all along. If not, well, this is one area where natural selection has a role to play for these God-fearing Conservatives.