There is no question that every government since pre- and post-Confederation has had a hand in the theft of our Indigenous lands and resources, the control of our citizens and the division of our Nations. Governments now make very public apologies, but still maintain our communities in poverty. There was a small sign of change with the Kelowna Accord, but the Conservatives blew that out of the water once they came to power. There would be no investment in food, water, education or housing for First Nations -- not on an assimilationist, radical Conservative watch.
However, there is always the pesky media and public to worry about, so after Prime Minister Stephen Harper tore up the Kelowna Accord, he had to save face publicly by making one of his infamous empty promises. Harper promised that instead of $10 billion to address the crisis of poverty in our First Nations, we'd get a First Nation-Crown Summit. I was very skeptical about this "deal" for two reasons: (1) it was unilaterally imposed and (2) it didn't seem like a fair deal to me.
This meeting was promised by Harper and his Conservative government three times, always failing to come to fruition. During this time, and in Harper's own backyard, we saw the people of Kashechewan First Nation evacuated from their community because they were all sick from the contaminated water due to the chronic underfunding of infrastructure on reserve. We also read the disturbing findings of the Coroner's Death Report about the epidemic of child suicide at Pikangikum First Nation. If that wasn't bad enough, Attawapiskat First Nation called a state of emergency for the third time because people had no homes and were living in sheds.
Given that the media kept its attention on Attawapiskat for more than 24 hours, Harper was publicly embarrassed. Add to this his ineffective Minister of Indian Affairs, John Duncan, who could not help but spew stereotypical and inflammatory remarks about First Nations and Harper was once again forced to do something. This was a very difficult position for him because he has no intention of doing anything for First Nations -- so he relied on his post-Kelowna disaster promise: a First Nation-Crown Summit.
However, meetings never come together very well when one has no intention of really doing anything at this meeting and you don't want to meet in the first place. But, it was a meeting nonetheless and it accomplished the task of taking most of the media's attention away from Attawapiskat and focusing it on the now "historic" meeting between Harper and First Nations. Yet, this historic meeting was not to be as historic as the first ministers' meetings with First Nations because the provinces would not be in attendance and now, Harper is bailing out as well.
The First Nations-Crown Summit agenda that was originally posted on the Assembly of First Nations website showed a day which was mostly taken up with ceremony and political speeches. The minimal time actually dedicated to the meeting with Harper and First Nations was to be top secret and not televised or streamed live on the web for grassroots First Nations or the public to see. There was also to be a complete media blackout as no media were allowed to watch or participate in the meeting. A few strategic locations in Canada were to be set up with cameras so that Chiefs could watch the event, but those locations are also top secret -- at least to the media anyway.
So, if that were not bad enough, now we have word that Harper won't even stay long at his own meeting. Harper will not even attend the actual meeting itself -- if you can believe that. No, Harper is too busy with his international "jet-setting" to attend a "historic" meeting with First Nations to address issues like Attawapiskat. Instead, National Chief of the AFN Shawn Atleo gets to meet with a couple of cabinet ministers and a whole lot of federal bureaucrats.
So, what will be Atleo's response? He is after all, the National Chief and the one who must set an example for everyone else. He has not only First Nation Chiefs watching him, but all the grassroots people who live or die by what he does and does not do. We look to our leaders, in all forms, to stand up for us, advocate on our behalf and make sure our voices are heard. A lot is riding on his response to this latest slap in the face by Harper. How will the AFN respond?
For those of you concerned about previous comments I have made about Shawn Atleo's weak leadership, please let me assure you that these comments are not about him as a person. I don't know him personally. I have met him a few times, and he seems nice enough. My issue is with his job as a leader and as a First Nations person; I am entitled to expect strong leadership from someone who holds such a powerful position. When I critique his politics, it is not lateral violence against him as a person, but instead a call to act responsibly for our people.
I always say images shape aspirations. If we see our parents treat us with love and compassion, we are likely to treat others that way. If we see Indigenous professors and university presidents, then we are more likely to think of those jobs as possible for ourselves. If we see strong Indigenous women leaders, we model the way for our youth to know that they can work for their people regardless of gender. In the same vein, when Atleo acts, he is indirectly telling our First Nation children, youth and young adults what is possible.
So, if Atleo sees the Prime Minister:
- Tear up Kelowna Accord;
- Refuse to sign the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples;
- Deny that colonialism ever happened in Canada;
- Make amendments to the Indian Act that continue both gender discrimination AND legislative extinction;
- Blame Attawapiskat for their own suffering and refuses to vist the First Nation;
- Not act when conditions in Pikangikum get so bad that nine-year-old children commit suicide;
- Allow his Minister of Indian Affairs to deny that residential schools were acts of genocide; and
- Duck out of the First Nation-Summit;
And then does nothing about it -- then the message he sends to First Nations children living without water, food or a warm home is that we are not worth standing up for.
All the murdered and missing Indigenous women in this country are not worth standing up for.
All the Chiefs that have been ignored, insulted, stood up, stone-walled, and belittled are not worth standing up for.
After all, if Atleo does not think we are worth standing up for, why would anyone else think we are worth it? Children will see that their suffering takes a back seat to the risk that by standing up for us like a real leader, Atleo might lose some funding for the AFN. Perhaps the Conservative government might not attend their AGMs for a year or two. Or Harper might even refuse to meet with Atleo for a while.
We all know that this is a serious risk. We saw the Native Women's Association of Canada lose its Sisters in Spirit funding when they brought international attention to Missing and Murdered Indigenous women in Canada. We saw the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society lose their funding when they filed a discrimination complaint against Canada for chronically under-funding child and family services putting our children at risk.
But our Indigenous leaders take risks. Our warriors put their lives on the line for our territories and our people. Our ancestors gave up their lives to protect us. We still have our pride, our cultures and our communities because of them. The least Atleo can do is take a risk and finally say enough is enough -- tell Harper that we will not settle for scraps anymore.
This First Nation-Crown Summit has now been reduced to an Atleo-bureaucrat summit where most of the time will be taken in fluffy, empty speeches to make Harper look good, some gift-giving and ceremony and then Harper leaves before anyone has a chance to talk about the hard issues. If Atleo would stand for this on behalf of all the Chiefs, this makes me wonder -- how bad does it have to get? What would it take for Atleo to say enough?
His lack of action and bizarre defence of Harper makes me wonder if Atleo is the new Brazeau? No progress has been made, yet Atleo is always defending the Conservatives. That may have got Brazeau a Senate seat, but it didn't improve the lives of First Nations people.
I guess I'll get my answer when Atleo responds to this latest development. If he defends Harper's no-show at the upcoming meeting -- I guess there is nothing more I can say about it. We'll see on the news tonight or tomorrow if he stands up for us or supports Harper.
Here's naively hoping...
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