As the last months of Paul Martin’s Liberal government were winding down, two very important series of negotiations were brought to a close. The first was the contentious issue of compensation and reconciliation over the residential school system imposed by the Federal government on the Native populations, and the second was the commitment of $5 billion dollars over five years by all the provinces and the Federal government to housing, health, and education for first nations people.
The residential school system was devised by the Canadian government as a means of dealing with the “Indian Problem”. The idea was to ensure future generation’s assimilation into white society by taking children from their parents and dumping them into boarding school thousands of miles away from home.
The schools were administered by whatever Christian church happened to be dominate in that territory, and proceeded to commit cultural genocide. All inhabitants were forbidden to speak their own language, they were instructed that the beliefs of the their parents (and their parents themselves) were evil, they were stripped of all personal possessions, and kept in Dickinson conditions.
Supposedly they were being trained to be able to “fit in” but in actuality they were being conditioned to be low paying menial labour. The girls were set to work in the laundries and kitchens of the school, and taught basic house keeping skills. The boys were janitorial and gardening staff, and put to work in the kitchens as well.
They were all taught either French or English and whatever form of Christianity those running the schools espoused. Naturally those in Quebec would have been predominantly Catholic and French, while the rest of Canada was mainly Anglican (Episcopalian equivalent).
If this wasn’t bad enough the children were also subjected to some of the most horrible systematic abuse imaginable. Punishments for speaking your own language were as extreme as being locked up naked in a cell, beaten severely, and anything else that could be devised to “beat the Indian” out of them.
Of course there were also the nightly visits that so many of them were subjected to. Sexual abuse of both the male and female students by the staff was rampant. The churches obviously used these places as depots for those whose appetites made them unacceptable as leaders of congregations. There may have been some decent people amongst them, but they would have been the exception to the rule.
These schools were in operation into the 1970’s in parts of Canada, ensuring that generation after generation of people were turned into dysfunctional messes. The inheritance of these schools are the high incidences of sexual abuse on Native reserves, alcoholism, and a suicide rate that would cause a panic if it were among white people.
The agreement reached late in 2005 had two key components; compensation and reconciliation. In some ways the later is the more important element. Following the lead of the Australian government, a truth and reconciliation commission will be formed to provide education and understanding about this long ignored item of Canadian history. It is hoped this commission will begin the process of helping to address the anger and resentment on both sides of coin.
Both the First Nations people who suffered the humiliation of the schools and the Canadians of non-native descent need to understand the other’s position. Many non-natives do not understand the implications of the residential schools and the long-term affects they had on whole communities. They resent what they see as “special treatment” for a bunch of lazy welfare recipients.
If you have not suffered the stigma of sexual abuse, or even systemic emotional and physical abuse, you cannot understand what it can do to a person, let alone a whole generation of people. Ideally this commission will help to bridge this gap of incomprehension.
If you live in Southern Canada, especially Ontario, the only reserve you probably have come across has a Casino on it and looks quite prosperous. Even on those reserves, and there aren’t that many of them, once you get past the Casino, the prospect of employment is extremely limited.
The further north one travels, in general, the worse conditions get. Housing goes from nice to adequate, from adequate to desperate. Recently a whole reserve in Northern Ontario had to be evacuated because the water system became completely corrupted, and it was impossible to live there.
Health care facilities are primitive, with maybe a nurse able to come to a local clinic once a week, and to get anything beyond a basic high school education one would have to travel thousands of miles. This pattern is repeated in communities across Canada, from Baffin Island to New Brunswick.
That $5 billion over five years that looks so large, begins to shrink when you think of the numbers of people and communities that it has to be distributed amongst, for health, education, and housing. Even considering we’re talking about only those who are enrolled band members living on reserve, the numbers of people would be staggering.
As it stands neither of these “treaties” has been ratified by any of the houses of parliament in Canada. The provinces will not be in a hurry to do anything before the federal government first passes the legislation through the House of Commons in Ottawa.
In today’s online web comment in the Globe and Mail Phil Fontaine, national chief of The Assembly of First Nations (AFN) addressed these two issues in light of the current federal election. As befits a man who grew up on the gritty streets of the North End of Winnipeg he was pretty blunt in his assessment of the situation.
While making it clear that the AFN is a non-partisan organization, he also said there would be no way in the world they would endorse any party opposed to approving either one of these deals. If his calculations are correct, and there is no reason to suspect otherwise, he claims that the native population could swing as many as sixty-three seats (electoral districts) towards the party of their choice.
In an election this close, those seats could be the difference between Steven Harper’s Conservative Party of Canada getting the majority they covet, and having to deal with a minority government. In his article today Mr. Fontaine wasn’t tipping his hand on how he was going to encourage natives to vote; all he said was that they will be looking for unequivocal support for the deals, and monitoring each party’s response.
This statement was primarily directed at Mr. Harper. Both the New Democratic Party (N.D.P.) and the Liberals would be supportive of these deals without question. But in the past members of Steven Harper’s party have gone on record expressing sentiments along the lines of: “They lost, we won, tough luck” when it comes to native issues.
They have opposed most of the new land claim treaties and what they call “preferential treatment”. A large proportion of their core supporters are those who stand to lose most through native empowerment: oil companies, lumber companies, and others wishing to exploit treaty territories under dispute.
The two questions that are most important in the equation of the sixty-three seats are, will they make a difference (are they seats that could go either way, or ones already conceded to either the Liberals or the N.D.P.) and two, can Mr. Fontaine deliver them as he says he can. If the AFN asks natives to vote for the candidate most likely to defeat a Conservative in a riding will enough of them come out to vote, and will they listen to what the AFN has to say.
The AFN is made up of the chiefs of the various band councils across Canada. Their relationship with various communities has been rocky on a variety of occasions. The territories they represent elect the chiefs, but the turn out for these elections is often very low. Some of the councils are rife with nepotism and corruption, and have deeply divided their people.
In other areas their actual right to rule is questioned. Electing of chiefs is as alien to a lot of First Nations peoples as the residential school system. It was a system imposed upon them by the government as a means of eliminating the power of the traditional chiefs who were seen as rallying points for discontent. Some people still refer to AFN chiefs with the derogatory term of Apple (red on the outside white on the inside)
The AFN itself has often come under fire for being too much a tool of the oppressor. As recently as ten years ago a group of Mohawks went to Ottawa and trashed their offices to protest against their lack of support.
Has Phil Fontaine managed to heal these wounds within his own community sufficiently to create the kind of voting bloc he claims he has? Mr. Fontaine has far more “street” credibility than any of his predecessors and appears to have far more backing from communities. He has shown that his is willing to be patient when it comes to dealing with the government on the larger issues, but at the same time will back local community acts for recognition.
While predecessors would issue ultimatums to Ottawa, and than waffle when it came to local standoffs, Fontaine has taken the opposite approach. He knows when it’s important to count coup, and when it’s important to negotiate.
While the AFN may not be able to deliver sixty-three seats in this election, their threat to do so is indicative of Mr. Fontaine’s way of doing business. He’ll negotiate when it’s needed, but he’s also prepared to go to war for his people when necessary. It’s that attitude, and the fact that he’s just delivered results as he has promised he would, that could bring a new player on to the Canadian political map: The Native Vote.
Phil Fontaine has the instincts of a street fighter and the negotiating skills of a good lawyer. If I were Steven Harper I would not be taking him lightly. A maybe won’t cut it for natives anymore in Canada, and they are now prepared to back that up with what looks like sizable political clout.