It seems that the Conservatives just can’t win on the Aboriginal file

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Crown First Nations Gathering

THUNDER BAY – Editorial – It seems that the Conservatives just can’t win. When it comes to working with First Nations, the Conservatives have, in many ways, put action to long standing verbal and written promises left over from the Liberals who preceded them in office. Yet once again they are mired in anger and frustration from First Nations leaders. Comments made by Industry Minister Tony Clement in Thunder Bay have poured gasoline on a fire that should never have been lit in the first place.

When it comes to real action, the Conservatives likely can claim more than the previous Liberal government in First Nations communities.

However they are reaping a harvest of scorn and anger for their efforts. That is likely more a result of not communicating well with the wider audience of First Nations members or with their leadership.

The Conservatives would say it was Prime Minister Stephen Harper who issued an apology over the Residential Schools issue. The Liberals never did. It was perhaps Jack Layton’s finest hour in the minority parliament, but the former NDP leader and the Prime Minister were able to work together to make that apology happen.

Bluntly, it was a moment in a very partisan parliament where almost every member, save Pierre Poilievre an Ottawa MP who declared basically that Aboriginals should “engender the values of hard work and independence and self reliance”, rather than need compensation for the horrors inflicted on them in the residential schools were united in a cause. It was a positive moment that should have helped re-set the relationship.

Poilievre quickly apologized but the damage was already done. Words are a powerful weapon when used as swords.

The speed of progress on the Truth and Reconciliation process is frustrating many. The Conservatives could say things are certainly moving faster now than under any previous government, but that message isn’t being received.

The Conservatives were offered a golden opportunity in the Ontario community of Attawapiskat. Attawapiskat had been promised a school by the Liberals. That promise was made by then Kenora MP Robert Nault, after a diesel spill made the old school virtually a health and safety risk. The Liberal promise was made, and basically ignored for years.

The Conservatives are now getting set to build that school. That decision came after years of students fighting for a new school and being ignored by the Liberals. The Conservatives didn’t make the move as fast as everyone concerned might have liked, but it was made. The move came under current Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan, but after First Nations youth created one of the biggest lobby efforts ever and were basically ignored by Chuck Strahl the previous Minister.

That golden opportunity to move forward was slowed by apparent hamfisted partisanship? Think of it, where in Canada are students rallying to have a school built? Nowhere? You might be right.

On the area of education on First Nations, the Conservatives voted for an NDP motion on Shannen’s Dream. The have opened the door for action. It is now up to the government to demonstrate real action on that motion, and they could generate enormous good will.

Concerns over high prices for food in the North led the Conservatives to re-design the Northern Food program. It has opened up change and with some tweaking will change the process of food pricing in Northern Ontario. Again an opportunity for solid communications and building solid relationships could be made.

The Conservatives have also settled several long-disputed land claims with First Nations including one here in the region with the Fort William First Nation. There are several other long-standing land claims that have been settled. Each is a step forward in honouring promises made before the Conservatives came to power.

The base is there for a much better relationship, but that relationship seems to be slowly festering into anger. The Conservatives still seem to generate anger from many First Nations leaders.

Why?

Perhaps what it stems from is a combination of poor communications, coupled with some really ham-fisted management of a few major issues.

When the Conservatives came to power, they eliminated the Kelowna Accord, which was an agreement forged by the Liberals. That led to a rocky start in the relations between Prime Minister Harper and First Nations leaders.

Take the situation in Attawapiskat. When the community declared a state of emergency over housing problems, the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs was basically caught unawares. He complained that he didn’t know about it, because “Charlie Angus hadn’t told him”. The Minister often gave the appearance of operating his department on that file without caring for the results.

Now the truth of that statement can be argued, but as often it is in politics, perception is reality.

For the First Nation’s community, after the Conservatives moved Attawapiskat into third party management it was a move that sent a chilling message to all First Nation communities that complaining had consequences.

Next in the House of Commons the Conservatives blurred the lines with the Prime Minister defending the actions of his government claiming somehow that $94 million had been somehow wasted in the community. What he didn’t share was that was the money for education, medical, and all other services to the community.

The impression was that millions of dollars were being wasted or skimmed off the top in the community.

That lead to massive complaining over how money was being wasted in Attawapiskat. The communities purchase, made with funds raised from bingos and bake sales, of an ice resurfacer made things worse rather than better.

Months later, in April, the government manager was quietly removed, without any audits completed, and without any release of wasteful spending.

That move happened after it was learned that college, university and high school students had not received their monthly funding. Those payments should have been made by that manager, but were delayed. The government manager was on holidays in Hawaii while the students were left to their own devices.

Those are the kinds of moves that have put the relationship between First Nations and Canada on rocky shores. The Conservatives have moved toward message control sometimes seemingly more directed to their base than to the First Nations communities.

The Conservatives seem to be doing a two-step with First Nations, they take a step forward, and then another back. You don’t get anywhere dancing like that! It is a lesson that increasingly needs to be taught to governments, as First Nations are adapting and adopting better and faster communications strategies.

Perhaps what is needed is for the Prime Minister, in a widely expected cabinet shuffle this summer to put in a new Minister with some experience in the North, coupled with some understanding of First Nations. A worth strategy might be for the Prime Minister to consult with First Nations leaders about who might be a good Minister for them to work with to start solving problems.

Maybe then, the Conservatives could start seeing some long-term progress on an issue that all Canadians should support.

James Murray
Chief Content Officer