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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.