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As an unprecedented wave of indigenous resistance surges across the country and the Prime Minister finally prepares to meet with hunger-striking Chief Theresa Spence, we’re starting to witness a backlash. Though initially caught unaware, the pundits and trolls are now coming out in force.
Yesterday, an audit of Attawapiskat’s finances (2005-2011) was leaked to the press. Obviously timed to diminish support and sympathy for the reserve and it’s chief, it examined the band’s finances between 2005 and 2011 when Chief Spence gained national attention by declaring a state of emergency over a housing crisis on the reserve. In response, Harper accused the band of squandering funds and placed the band under “third party management”, a move later deemed illegal by courts.
Spence has dismissed this audit as a “distraction“, but in many ways the damage is done. Canada’s editorial class is taking the opportunity to re-frame the issue along more traditional lines, and the past few days have seen an explosion of negative press. Andrew Coyne claims that Idle No More is little more than a conflict between “modernizers” and “traditionalists” on reserves. John Ivison of the National Post states “whatever the Canadian state cedes to Theresa Spence, it will never be enough”. And of course Christie Blatchford has weighed in condemning police for endangering “the rule of law” by not arresting rail blockaders in Sarnia’s Chemical Valley.
These pundits and the horde of trolls which fills the comment sections below their articles make up the Canadian state’s front line of defence against threats like this. After the failure of massive police/military mobilizations to stop demonstrations in the 1990s (Oka, Ipperwash, Gustafson Lake, etc), we’ve seen a shift toward somewhat gentler physical responses. This has left reactionary pundits to ‘hold the line’, but also fuelled their claims of “special treatment” and “lawlessness”. The narratives they present are fairly consistent if shockingly ignorant, and this new leaked audit fits perfectly into their tales.
Too Many Chiefs?
Of the stereotypes and clichés used to dismiss First Nations protests, the notion of a wealthy and corrupt leadership which keeps everybody else in poverty plays an incredibly important role. With Band Councils presented as “the real bad guys”, pundits can shift attention away from the government. What they don’t mention is that Band Councils are government institutions, imposed by the Indian Act to replace “traditional” leadership. Such critiques are often put forward by activists themselves, and generally fall on deaf ears. Many have questioned what gives Theresa Spence the authority to go on her hunger strike, but can anybody imagine the National Post giving her the same kind of scrutiny if she were simply trying to sell off her reserve’s timber and mineral rights to some big corporation?
If there is corruption on reserves (and there is), we should pay attention to where it tends to take hold – particularly those institutions most closely linked to the Department of Indian Affairs (“and Northern Development”). This is still one of the world’s most legendarily restrictive bureaucracies, and had to sign off on these expenditures at every step of the way. Attawapiskat has been under “co-management” for most of the last decade, while Theresa Spence was only elected in 2010. Much has been said about highly paid Band Council officials, but just like “wealthy union bureaucrats”, this critical light rarely shines on those they sit across the table from.
Regardless, there’s a very simple reason that “overpaid Chiefs” don’t explain the Attawapiskat housing crisis or any other case like it – there was never enough money coming in to prevent it, even if all the local authorities worked for free. With a yearly paycheque coming in around $70 grand, Theresa Spence has not yet been paid enough since taking office to put up a single house (around $250 000 given transport costs).
Along with this comes the distortions of indigenous politics and the division between “modernizers” and “traditionalists” (as Coyne puts it). This division is real and crucial to understanding reserve politics. Instead of examining that context, though, pundits like Coyne tend to characterize it as the same old “progress” debate. Left out entirely is the history of attempts to “modernize” reserves, well over a century old, filled with abuses of human rights not to mention being a spectacular failure. Toronto-style economic strategies have never worked in Canada’s North, despite decades of attempts to impose them. “Traditional” strategies, on the other hand, have a well-document and growing legacy of success in areas from governance to justice and health care. In the “Fourth World”, much like the Third, aid and development strategies which disregard local culture, custom and opinion tend to offend more than anything else.
The True North…
I don’t know how many of these columnists have been very far north in this country (no, not Muskoka and Huntsville), but it isn’t like Southern Ontario. Admittedly, I haven’t been as far as Attawapiskat, but I’ve spent enough time bumming around to get some perspective. For most of this country’s landmass, a “big city” has a church, a post office a general store. <a href=”http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Attawapiskat_First_Nation”>Their reserve</a> is a thousand kilometres north of Toronto, accessible mainly by air and has just under two thousand residents. Their roads are dirt, they speak mostly Cree and they’ve been mired for years in a housing crisis as well as all the other usual ailments of northern indigenous communities. Is anybody really surprised that they’ve had trouble finding a good accountant? Does anybody seriously think that accountants are what they need right now?
There’s one final point which needs making about the characterizations of Chief Spence, Idle No More and other indigenous resistance making the news right now: this is a movement. Theresa Spence does not speak for Idle No More, nor does any other official representative as organizers have already stated. Others involved include groups as diverse as land defenders in Unist’ot’en and the Assembly of First Nations. Coyne and others have, as usual, dismissed the lack of a single leader or central authority as a sign of incoherence. The implication they make is that only such kinds of top-down authority can be legitimate, which of course goes against most history and principles of both indigenous nations and social movements.
One “leader”, even one as noble as Spence, could be bought off or taken out. With a diverse and decentralized movement presenting many kinds of pressure in many places, Harper has little choice but to face the issue itself, rather than a few representatives. John Ivison is right about one thing – there’s no amount which could be given to Chief Spence to stop this movement. What Coyne, Ivison, Blatchford and others don’t seem to grasp is that this movement isn’t after anything so simple.
Once again our Nation’s attention has turned to the modern-day fourth-world horrors of Canada’s northern First Nations reserves. This time the focus is on Attawapskat, Ontario, for the housing prolonged housing crisis, where many will go to sleep tonight in shacks and tents and brave the already-sub-zero temperatures. Like usual, the response from the government has been utterly ignorant of context or history – treating the issue like a “crisis” where normality and order need to be re-established, and where no colossal problem existed before. Attempting to “take charge ” of the situation Harper has seized financial control of the reserve from the Band Council and demanded to know where the tens of millions of dollars it’s received went.
It takes an incredible ignorance of First Nations people and issues to see the problems of Attawapiskat in this way. The first obvious objection might be that the Band Councils are Federal Government institutions, at least as much as they are representatives of the band. If Harper wants to know where the money’s going, he need only ask around his own government – for they know full well exactly what’s happening to it. As the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples showed years ago, there’s enough money already being spent on First Nations to address all of the issues brought fourth – if only they’d cut the budgets being spent on paternalistic bureaucracies overseeing them.
Harper says he wants “responsible Self Government”. Responsible to whom? Taking control in this manner is the epitome of the colonial mentality which still crops up constantly in these issues. It may be racist and unbelievably historically ignorant, but these ideas are very popular. The notion that white statesmen have a duty to take over and rule dysfunctional communities of coloured folks is as alive and well as it was when “White Man’s Burden” was written. It’s also just as false, and every bit as destructive.
Like safe drinking water, education, political representation and nutritious food, housing is in “crisis” on reserves across the country. Take a drive through a few of them if you don’t believe me. When have Canada’s reserves been any different? This isn’t a case of some silly natives squandering their funding and screwing up their homes, this has been the status quo since these reserves were established. A century of “Northern Development” policies have been a grandiose disaster, hoping to replicate Southern, “civilized” life with a utopian naivete which is all too familiar. Populations were settled for the sake of being settled, in the middle of nowhere, and neglected for generations. Large scale resource extraction companies never left much money behind for communities, but they did often leave entire landscapes toxified (pulp mills, Tar Sands, uranium mines etc) and unable to support traditional lifestyles like hunting game or drinking from rivers. There never was a chance of another Toronto or Calgary rising in the Yukon, nor was there ever any real funding for such a dream. Were this not enough, countless millions were spent on the indigenous populations, policing them, stripping them of land abducting their children. The harm caused by Residential Schools, the Indian Act and RCMP will endure for generations, leaving a legacy of pain, depression and shattered communities.
Without a view of this context, First Nations issues are impossible to discuss honestly. How can we talk of a “two tiered justice system” without mentioning the incredibly disproportionate number of Native people in jail? How can we talk about the lack of property rights on reserves when so many valuable resources are extracted from native lands without compensation? Indigenous issues are not some marginal issue of Canadian identity politics, they’re a very serious concern in nearly any country you can name. Wherever you look, from South America to Australia and everywhere in between, these issues sit uncomfortably under all discussions on economics, ecology and development.
We all need to stop thinking about “Northern Development” like people from Southern Ontario. We’re not cowboys or pioneers settling a “frontier”. The kind of expensive and extensive state-supported infrastructure which exists here is financially impossible there, and beyond unwelcome politically. Corporations owned and here and listed on the TSX care about as much about the indigenous populations their Canadian diamond and uranium mines here as they do in Equador or Bolivia. We need something far more sustainable.
Venture out into Canada. Virtually all of this country makes Toronto or Vancouver seem like the distant future or another planet. Forget about cell phone signals – most of these places barely get one radio station. These communities are small and remote. Mills and processing plants have been vanishing for decades in favour of larger consolidated ones elsewhere. These communities often exist in environments of unbelievable bounty, which all too often is is shipped off our way with little left behind. Communities are vanishing – small towns, family farms and reserves are all struggling to keep their young people from fleeing to the south. This isn’t just true of First Nations people, but they bare some of the worst of it. This situation was spawned by centuries of distant rule and from Ottawa, Toronto and overseas, and more of it isn’t going to fix the problem.
(Next I’ll look into these houses themselves – did you know it takes ~$250 000 to build a single house in Attawapiskat? And do you know what happens next to those houses in that Arctic floodplain?)