By Lloyd Dolha
Canada’s aboriginal population has taken a wait and see attitude towards the new Harper-led government, which captured a minority government on January 23 putting an end to the Liberals’13-year reign. Will Conservative advisor Tom Flanagan, well known for his arguments against self-government, jeopardize the Kelowna Accord?
While the Conservatives took 124 seats of the 308 seats across the country, the Liberals managed to hang on to 103 ridings to form the official opposition, with the Bloc Quebecois taking 51 ridings; and Jack Layton’s NDP taking 29 seats.
It’s quite an interesting scenario. In a sense, everybody won. The Tories won because they took the most seats, making inroads into separatist Quebec and thereby maintaining the federalist option. The Liberals won because they maintained significant support nationally to form the official opposition despite the legacy of the sponsorship scandal. The NDP won because they increased seats from 18 to 29; and the Bloc won because they now hold the balance of power to bring down the Conservative minority government.
Aboriginal leaders from across the country breathed a collective sigh of relief at those results after some pre-election rhetoric by senior Conservative Party members that the long-sought Kelowna Accords were “something that (the Liberals) crafted at the last moment on the back of a napkin on the eve of an election” that could be ripped up by a Conservative government.
Prime Minister elect Stephen Harper cannot blithely tear up the Kelowna Accords, which was achieved with all major national aboriginal organizations, the premiers and territorial leaders, to end aboriginal poverty, prior to the fall of the Liberal government. To do so would incur the wrath of the combined forces of the Liberals, the NDP and the Bloc, whose policy platforms are explicitly supportive of an aboriginal rights agenda.
The First Nations Leadership Council of BC said they are looking forward to establishing a constructive working relationship with the Harper government in the wake of his minority victory.
In a letter sent to the PM-elect, the Leadership Council congratulated Mr. Harper and requested a meeting during his first official trip to British Columbia as prime minister.
“For now, we must put aside our concerns and work to establish a new relationship of trust and cooperation with the Prime Minister and his new government,” said Shawn Atleo, BC regional chief of the Assembly of First Nations. “We have our priority issues and are confident once we have had the opportunity to meet with Mr. Harper, we will reach a mutual understanding of the required actions on key aboriginal issues.”
The letter further urged the PM-elect and his minority government to work with opposition parties to ensure aboriginal issues are given the high priority they received under the Liberal government.
“We are confident Mr. Harper will honour the historic government -to- government accords signed between First Nations and the government of Canada at the conclusion of the First Minister’s meeting in Kelowna in November,” said Chief Stewart Phillip, president of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs. “We will also be seeking meetings with all opposition parties to ensure they fully support the implementation of both the Kelowna Accord and the BC Transformative Change Accord.”
In a press release, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, Phil Fontaine, noted that with the Conservative minority status and a strong opposition, parliament should work together with First Nations to maintain the momentum achieved in the 18 months of discussion that led up the Kelowna Accords and the Residential Schools Agreement-in-Principle.
“Closing the gap in quality of life between First Nations and other Canadians within ten years must remain our shared legacy project,” said Fontaine.
Fontaine said the AFN was reassured that the Conservative Party would respect the objectives and targets of the First Ministers meeting and would implement the Residential Schools agreement.
The national chief also noted that PM-elect Harper has stated that he is seeking to give the provinces and territories more say in decision-making on national priorities, as well as more access and control over resources in their regions.
“In many ways, this is what First Nations are seeking. A prime minister from a western province is no doubt aware of the issues that face our people. This includes the pressing labour market needs, and that tapping the potential of our young and growing population is essential to Canada’s continued success and productivity.
“There are many win-win approaches to our mutual issues and we want to work on an agenda aimed at getting results that honours the Conservative legacy of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples by honouring its recommendations.”
Harper has said that he “supports the principles and objectives” of the Kelowna Accords, but would not be bound by the $5.1 billion price tag. And really, Harper has no choice but to honour those commitments made in the dying days of the Liberal government.
Given the Conservative’s minority status, Harper must seek consensus with opposition parties to move any legislative agenda forward. He must, therefore, bend with the existing political winds to a large extent to move his agenda forward.
Still, the man is a Conservative who staunchly believes in smaller government, traditional values and giving citizens greater control of their lives.
Former advisor anti-rights crusader
And there is the question of what role his former mentor and member of his inner circle of advisors, Tom Flanagan, will play in aboriginal policy development.
Flanagan, the conservative American-born political science professor at the University of Calgary was a senior advisor in the Conservative campaign and is expected to play a similar role in a Harper government.
Flanagan has spent most of his career arguing against self-government and aboriginal rights.
His writings and public statements are inflammatory and racist. His book First Nations? Second Thoughts, published in 2000, argued that aboriginal people should be assimilated.
Flanagan was the co-chair of the movement that brought Harper back into federal politics, during the Stockwell Day leadership review in 2001, and later went on to be Harper’s Chief of Staff.
In First Nations? Second Thoughts, he describes what he calls the “aboriginal orthodoxy.” At the centre of this orthodoxy is the idea that aboriginal people are “nations” with an inherent right to self-government and sovereignty. Although the Supreme Court confirms this, Flanagan rejects both these propositions.
“Contemporary judicial attempts to redefine aboriginal rights are producing little but uncertainty. Recent Supreme Court of Canada decisions define aboriginal title in a way that will make its use impossible in a modern economy.”
Flanagan writes that aboriginal people should be viewed as the “first immigrants” and that “Europeans are, in effect, a new immigrant wave, taking control of land just as earlier aboriginal settlers did. To differentiate the rights of earlier and later immigrants is a form of racism.”
He also argues that aboriginal culture is inferior and their colonization was inevitable and justifiable, that aboriginal people are incapable of governing themselves.
It would be the ultimate horror show for First Nations if Flanagan played a significant role in the development and implementation of aboriginal policy and practice on the national scene.
At a press conference just prior to the election, Grand Chief Ed John of the First Nations Summit addressed that stark possibility.
“We’d have to take a very serious look at that whole scenario. Who advises the prime minister, should they form a government?”