Defining Moments in Indian Country 2014 Setting the Stage for 2015 Part II-Federal issues

As on the provincial front, federal issues continued to plague First Nation/governmental relations in 2014.  2015 promises to be no better unless Harper and his Conservative government are voted out or there is a drastic change in how the Federal government works with First Nations.

One key issue that dominates the news and social media is that of Missing and Murdered Indigenous women.  Repeated calls for a national inquiry are rejected. Money has been put forward to work on the issue but it is not a concerted effort nationally with a strategy behind it.  It seems to be a political effort to downplay resolving the real issues.  As more indigenous women go missing, are murdered or harmed in any way, calls for provincial and federal governments to actually do something increase.  Minister Bernard Valcourt came under fire in December by suggesting the problem lies in indigenous communities with men not respecting women.  He made it sound like it was only indigenous men that are harming indigenous women.  Nothing is farther from the truth.  There are definite problems in First Nations communities that need to be addressed, but there are as many problems within Canada that perpetuate racist, negative views of indigenous women that contribute to disrespect and devaluation of indigenous women. This issue cannot be buried or dismissed by the Federal government and will continue to trouble the federal government until joint solutions with indigenous people are implemented. 

The Canada China Treaty (FIPPA) was ratified by Canada in September 2014 even though the matter was waiting for a decision from the Federal Court of Appeal.  Hupacasath First Nation had challenged the federal government’s ability to ratify the agreement without consulting First Nations on the content of the FIPPA.  The Federal Crown has the royal prerogative to ratify, but showed disrespect to Hupacasath in ratifying something that will impact their rights and not waiting for the court decision. They also showed disdain for the Federal Court of Appeal.

In December the Mikisew Cree decision came down regarding the omnibus Bill C35 and 48 that help ignite the Idle No More movement.  The court said that Canada should have consulted First Nations on these federal bills as they will impact on the rights of First Nations.  The Canada China FIPPA is no different, it is a higher level but will still impact rights. The federal government gets around this by decreeing  there will be no impacts and therefore does not consult and then finds itself in trouble. Clearly the federal government must pay heed to its consultations/consent of First Nations obligations in passing legislation that will negatively impact rights. 

The court in the Mikisew Cree case did not strike down the legislation as invalid because of non-consultation.  I hope someday soon that the courts will find the courage to strike down the legislation and set decisions aside when the governments do not consult properly.  Only then will governments understand they have done something wrong and then have to go back and fix it.  It should not be the First Nations saying “we won, but the courts did nothing…”

The Financial Transparency Act caused a great deal of publicity this year as well.  The fiscal year of 2013-2014 was the first Audits that had to be made public.  Some Chiefs salaries were criticized. One Chief in particular had a large salary that had nothing to do with his being chief, rather from his job as an economic development officer and he came under fire. Chief’s salaries are the internal business of the members of the First Nation and it is up to them to deal with that matter, not the Canadian public.  This really was only a ploy to make Chiefs look bad on what they got paid if they were paid a substantial amount.  Those Chiefs that only made $4000 a year did not make the news. 

Some First Nations have refused to make their audits public due to the fact that their audits include money they make from their own sources like corporations or impact benefit agreements. These First Nations do not feel the public should know what money they get from other sources and how they spend that money.  They have no problems with accounting for the money they receive from the federal government and giving audits to their members. The Federal government has brought 5 of the First Nations to court and some First Nations have brought the Federal government to court over this Act. There are good legal arguments that make the Financial Transparency Act very challengeable and it will be interesting to see what the courts decide.  Too bad the federal government had to be so extreme in insisting on reporting and not willing to work with First Nations to address these concerns before tabling the bill. The Act puts First Nations at an economic disadvantage as any potential business partner knows exactly where they stand financially. No other business entity is required to do this unless they are a publicly listed corporation.

The federal government has not got involved in dealing with the issues that have arisen out of Tsilhqot’in leaving it up to the provincial governments.  This is their issue and must become involved. Neither federal or provincial governments have changed their treaty mandates and so creates great uncertainty as to whether the treaty process can survive.

The piece of federal legislation that created the most furor this year was the First Nations Control of First Nations Education Act (FNCFNE).  From the time the bill was first tabled, till the time it was set aside, First Nations across this country rejected this proposed Act as being too prescriptive with the federal government having all the control.  The proposed act belied the very title it was given and went so far as First Nations schools being legislated as to who they had to hire and what their responsibilities were. What First Nations Chiefs and Regional Chiefs of the Assembly of First Nations did not know was National Chief Shawn Atleo and Prime Minister Harper signed a deal secretly on First Nations education that committed to many things about education.  The National Chief had no authority to sign such an agreement under the constitution of the AFN.

The backlash against the bill that was because it was not what First Nations wanted or needed. Shawn Atleo resigned as National Chief saying he did not want to be a lightning rod for education and the focus should be on the children being educated.  I found this strange as Atleo had stood up to the Chiefs calling for his resignation after he attended the J11 meeting with the Prime Minister and he did not resign under that pressure.  I always wonder what more there was to the resignation and hope one day to find out.  Atleo disappeared for many months and when he resurfaced, he was fighting for his credibility in the new appointments he was given and said all the regional chiefs knew he signed the agreement.  No documents have been produced that proves that.  In fact, several regional chiefs have signed affidavits to that effect for the Quebec court challenge.  The issue on education has not yet been resolved and unless the Minister works closely with First Nations on jurisdiction over education, this will continue to be a pressing issue yet to be resolved.

What must be noted in federal issues is the fact that three former National Chiefs have joined the ranks of oil and gas companies to assist in talking First Nations into signing on to oil and gas deals.  These former National Chiefs are Shawn Atleo, Ovide Mercredi and Phil Fontaine.  When it was announced that Shawn Atleo had signed on, the fall from grace was huge on Facebook.  People were shocked that Shawn who had represented them and their interests and who they held in high esteem could “sell out”, could “defect” could be “taken in by” these oil companies.  I will not repeat some of the comments as they were pretty graphic but they show the contempt for these 3 for working with oil and gas companies.

These three men can accept any jobs they want and Shawn, Ovide and Phil can rationalize taking jobs with these companies by saying they want to make sure First Nations get a good deal, or they think it is a good opportunity for First Nations that must be taken advantage of.  Frankly, most First Nations will not change their minds even if it is Atleo, Mercredi or Fontaine encouraging them to sign onto mega projects with oil and gas.  I am sure the oil companies and the federal government believe they have made a real coup bringing on these 3 former National chiefs but many First Nations will stand strong in their opposition.  There will be some who will sign on because these 3 are there but they my guess is they will be in the minority. Governments/corporations use all kinds of tactics to get First Nations to sign onto development, whether it is money, benefits or jobs or negotiators. 

It has been a very interesting year watching indigenous leadership that were chosen to lead and wondering where the integrity and commitment to the people and the land is. It is interesting to think whether these men would have been elected as National Chief if they had worked for oil and gas before their election?

All these issues in the province of BC and across Canada are only symptoms of the larger underlying problems.  Those underlying problems are substantial and include: the reluctance of the governments to uphold aboriginal rights and title when revenue for them is minimized, continuing their neo-colonialism by imposing laws that are inappropriate, determining what they think is good for the greater public at great cost to First Nations, not negotiating in good faith, and not embracing First Nations for the contributions they can bring to the table.

 Continuing struggles by First Nations against Canada will continue as long as the federal government believes they have all the solutions, drafts laws they think will work and then impose them on First Nations.  First Nations are standing up to these actions and create an atmosphere of adversity, power struggles and uncertainty within Canada.  2015 will be another volatile year with First Nations/Federal relations.

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