In the Speech, First Nations were reduced to a mere minority cultural group of “Aboriginal Canadians” relegated to Canada’s past. Our alleged role in the creation of Canada is a “contribution” to be commemorated within the context of historical battles between European powers for our lands. Our “commemoration” is not a celebration of our Indigenous sovereignty, but a celebration of Confederation and reinforcement of Canada’s assertion of sovereignty over First Nations. In fact, not only did the Harper Government revert back to the two founding nations concept of Canada, but they specifically acknowledged Quebec’s status as a Nation within Canada.
First Nations issues did not feature prominently in the Speech and the few items that were included were laced with racism and paternalism. The following is a list of the promises made specific to First Nations:
(1) Take steps to ensure “Aboriginal Canadians” find the job-training they need;
(2) Continue to work with “Canada’s First Nations” to develop “stronger, more effective, and more accountable on-reserve education systems”; (3) Job opportunities for “Canada’s Aboriginal peoples” in the natural resource extractive industry; (4) Renew efforts to address murdered and missing Aboriginal women; (5) Continue dialogue on treaty relationship and comprehensive land claims; and (6) Work with Aboriginal peoples to create healthy, prosperous, self-sufficient communities.
The first promise, i.e., to give Aboriginal Canadians the job training, starts from the flawed premise that Canada is working with the most educated work force in the world. That may be the case for Canadians in general, but it is far from true for First Nations peoples where the gap in educational attainment continues to grow. Even the terminology that is used signifies the Harper Government is coming from an employment equity point of view, as opposed to a Nation to Nation partnership, Aboriginal and treaty rights or human right point of view.
This paternalistic nature of these “promises” is also evident from the possessory language that is used to describe First Nations. “Canada’s Aboriginal peoples” is an offensive phrase implying First Nations belong to Canada – the same paternalistic mentality indicative of Canada’s colonial past. Similarly, the phrase “Aboriginal Canadians” subjugates Indigenous peoples to Canada’s assertion of sovereignty over their lands and resources.
First Nation Education:
The second promise in relation to First Nation education is an example of the degree to which First Nations are always presented by the Harper government in a child-like manner using words like “potential” to describe their current state. The promise to build stronger, more accountable education systems on reserve implies that First Nation schools are not already accountable. We know from every report ever written that the issue around First Nation education is about lack of real First Nation control and severe, chronic underfunding. Trying to blame the victim and make veiled accusations of corruption only promotes stereotypes not conducive to addressing the crisis in education.
What this promise doesn’t say is that the Harper government has drafted First Nation Education Legislation which will be introduced in the House shortly, likely in the omnibus bill with all the other new and amended pieces of legislation. Just like with Bill C-45, one of the bills which spurred on the Idle No More movement, this legislation will be rammed through the house without consultation, debate or the consent of First Nations. It is unconstitutional legislation that directly violates constitutionally protected treaty rights and international rights. This is not much of a promise when what was critically needed was funding.
The third promise to ensure job opportunities in the natural resource extractive industry is another way of saying that Canada will continue to steal Indigenous lands and extract the resources for its own benefit. Harper has no intention of respecting the Aboriginal or treaty rights of First Nations in relation to the wealth from their lands, nor does will he consider the sharing of the natural resources. The benefit that First Nations can expect from this promise is to be trained in how to mine gold, cut down trees, or extract oil from tar sands. Harper plans to use First Nations as the labourers so large corporations can export their profits outside Canada while First Nations people are left with the environmental contamination.
It should be kept in mind that this promise is closely tied to the other promises made in the Speech related to natural resources. Canada is claiming that they own all the natural resources and there is no mention of the rights of First Nations in this regard or the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples which confirms First Nation ownership. Instead, the Speech was clear that Harper’s government that they will build the infrastructure necessary to access the resources and sell them to foreign governments.
The Speech did confirm what First Nations have been saying for decades: it’s not tax payers that pay for social programs, but the $30 billion+ in natural resource development that pays for education, health and other social programs that Canadians enjoy. In other words, Canadians enjoy free education and health care paid for (subsidized) by First Nation natural resources and not the other way around.
Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women:
The fourth promise to renew efforts to address murdered and missing women was likely the most offensive part of this Speech. The Governor General spoke of protecting murdered and missing First Nation women followed by a promise to up-hold anti-prostitution laws, followed by a promise to enact legislation to protect dogs. Many listeners to the Throne Speech were shocked by the coupling of murdered and missing action with anti-prostitution laws. The racist overtones and implications here are unforgivable given the many reviews and approvals these speeches must go through before final approval.
The fifth promise to continue dialogue on treaties is not a promise at all. More talking means the status quo or no action continues. We have National Chief Shawn Atleo and his undercutting of the Treaty Chiefs in January 2013 at the Crown-First Nation meeting to thank for this meaningless promise. Once Harper knew Atleo would turn his back on his own Chiefs and compromise their leverage, he knew he would never have to make any real concessions on treaties and this is what we see in the Speech. More talk, no action on implementation. That being said, Canada has a legal duty to respect and implement treaty rights which are constitutionally and internationally protected.
Indian Affairs Mandate:
“improve social well-being and economic prosperity; develop healthier, more self-sufficient communities; and participate more fully in Canada’s political, social and economic development.” This has been the mandate of Indian Affairs for decades and they have failed their mandate year after year with no accountability. Promising to live up to only one part of their three-part mandate is not an encouraging sign for First Nations. Very little of substance was offered First Nations in this budget. Instead, Harper will focus on television programming, streamlining e-mails and protecting dogs. The level to which the crisis in First Nations has been ignored is astounding given the United Nations Rapporteur’s recent visit to Canada which has highlighted some of the extreme living conditions and injustices in Canada. Similarly, all the Auditor General, Correctional Investigator and independent reports and studies have all been ignored. The situation of purposeful chronic underfunding of essential human services which leads to the pre-mature deaths of First Nations peoples remains Canada’s biggest shame.
It is criminal that Canada “will help the world’s neediest” with financial aid and economic development, but will let First Nations live in third world conditions despite the many calls for help. It is no wonder Harper will not answer to the Canadian public tomorrow in the House – not unlike Senators Wallin, Duffy and Brazeau skipping the Speech today. The hypocrisy is nauseating – but even worse, will result in more lives lost in First Nations.
Canadians have the power to demand justice for First Nations while First Nations protect the lands and waters for all our future generations.