Wednesday, November 30, 2011

What Can You Say?

CTV News: Feds to put Attawapiskat Under Third-Party Management
CBC News: Attawapiskat Ordered into 3rd-Party Control
CBC News: Managers Axed at Sasktel

So, there's a few things that we need to talk about. The primary purpose of this post is going to focus on Aboriginal issues, both federally and provincially, with a small smattering of SaskTel news at the end of the post. There's also something we're going to talk about in the main body of the post that isn't covered by the sources above, and that revolves around the Sask NDP announcement that they will be back tracking on the resource revenue sharing idea that was put forward in the last election.

I want you to imagine for a moment. I'd tell you to close your eyes, but then you wouldn't know what you were reading and just what you were supposed to be imagining. I want you to picture yourself in a house. Now, most of us likely envisioned the house we live in now, or the house we grew up in, or maybe the house we'd like to live in if we had the money to...

Very few, if any of us, imagined a house full of imperfections. A house where every step on the floor results in a loud creak that makes you worry you're going to fall through on the next step. A house where the cold wind outside cuts through the walls in a way that makes you feel as though the walls don't even exist. A house where turning on a tap does not produce running water. A house where the walls are filled with noxious and health hazardous substances, like mold, which are threatening your health and your family's.

This is not some nightmare scenario. Rather, it is the accurate problems found with housing on Aboriginal Reserves across Canada. And it's the case with housing on the Attawapiskat Reserve in Northern Ontario; a case which is receiving a lot of media attention.

For the most part, many residents of the reserve are abandoning the houses that are too dangerous to live in in favour of makeshift shacks or tents that can barely stand the cold; if they can stand it at all. The reserve's leaders have even taken the step of declaring a state of emergency on the reserve, and the Red Cross has begun to help out the beleaguered community.

And the Harper Government drags their feet.

Despite intense opposition pressure, the Harper Government has done little to address the problems within the community. Harper himself as argued that the government has spent $90 million on the reserve since 2006. However, Liberal Interim Leader Bob Rae has suggested that this number is skewed. The reasoning being that the figure is including transfers to the reserve for the purpose of education spending, water and sewers, and other general expenses.

So, the Harper Government's response has been to order someone else to take control of the situation. The government has placed a third-party in control over the reserve and is also asking for a full audit of the reserve's finances to find out how the money received was spent over the past few years.

Now, an audit is not out of the question. It is important to make sure that money being put towards improving life on reserves is actually being used to improve life on reserves. It's much the same that money raised by the government and passed through Parliament is being spent properly; granted, that's a thing this government has a bad track record with, so it's a bit like the pot and the kettle...

So, while it is important to make sure money being received was well spent, it is also important to move quickly to address the current problems. The Red Cross has reported that temperatures are routinely around -15 to -20 in the area, and as we get deeper into winter those numbers are only going to get lower. As such, we have a responsibility to make sure that we minimize harm in the coming months.

The situation right now is bad, and it is a tragedy that is has reached this point in the first place. But it will be a source of national shame if we fail to act and the people living in these conditions are exposed to additional hardships over the coming months. As temperatures drop, the odds of people starting to die because of inaction by the government increases. These people have suffered enough without adding death of loved ones to the equation. And for that reason alone, if not all the problems mentioned before, is why we must act quickly.

Now, as I mentioned, these conditions are not unique to the Attawapiskat reserve. There are Aboriginal communities throughout Canada that are facing substandard housing, sewer and water system problems. Not to mention problems with education and health care access. Since many people probably failed to hear this point during the last provincial election, I'll say it here: In a municipality, education spending per child is around $1000 - 1200, depending on the size of the municipality. On reserve, that spending drops to about $600 - 800 per child.

These fundamental problems are what fosters situations like the ones we're seeing now. We are failing Aboriginals as children, and we continue to fail them as adults.

That said though, it is not only our responsibility to address these problems. Canada's problems with Aboriginal groups were a founding problem with this country. And the problem started by the newcomers attempting to dominate and control the every day lives of Aboriginal groups. And, sadly, that is the mentality that many people in Canada have held on to.

The idea that Aboriginals are still a 'lost child' that are the responsibility of the Federal Government and non-Aboriginal groups. That we have a responsibility to guide their lives and influence their day to day life. This is the same approach that created these problems in the first place.

Aboriginals are not a 'lost child' that need to be controlled and parented; they are (to belabour the metaphor) another parent with a different parenting style. That is to say, that Aboriginals are human beings like the rest of us. Just as deserving, and entitled, to the respect that the rest of us receive. And that also means allowing them to make their own decisions.

That means we need to have the Federal Government step back in the day to day life of Aboriginal Groups, and allow Aboriginals to take control of their own destiny. Yes, we do have an obligation to help Aboriginal groups in times of need and to help them lay the foundations of their own self-determinism; but we have to first raise them up to our level.

We have to accept that we are not the 'we know best' people we assume we are; the way our ancestors thought when they first came to this country. Rather, we must accept that we are both rational adult groups that MUST work TOGETHER, rather than have one side dictate at the other.

And that seems to be the best place to take us towards resource revenue sharing. I was at the Red Phesant Reserve when former NDP Leader Dwain Lingenfelter announced the NDP plan to begin negotiations with First Nation groups over resource revenue sharing.

And then the firestorm started.

The Saskatchewan Party was quick to condemn the plan, with Brad Wall mastering the art of the soundbite by arguing that 'Saskatchewan's resources belong to ALL people of Saskatchewan'. The spin began heavily from the Sask Party, and the true intentions of the resource revenue sharing plan were mostly lost to the masses and replaced with base rage and a tiny bit of blind racism.

So, the resource revenue sharing plan, let's break it down to what it truly meant.

As it works now, mining companies that want to develop mines or mills or what have you on reserve land have to work out deals with the respective band of that land. Which means, as it stands now, that bands already benefit from resource development on their land as they are paid a percentage already in exchange for the creation of that development.

What the resource sharing agreement would have accomplished was a unified percentage, which would have stopped negotiations between companies and Aboriginal groups and instead would have created a standard percentage rate.

So, let's say one Aboriginal group gets a 4% deal from a potash company for development on their land. Whereas a different group only received a 2% deal from the same company on a year or two earlier. The resource sharing plan would have eliminated these types of unfair deals and ensured that all Aboriginal groups with the same resource received the same amount of money for the same resource.

But that's not what the Sask Party told Saskatchewan residents. They told us that the deal would result in a percentage of the province's resource revenues being dolled out to Aboriginal groups. So, if the government made $25 million in potash, Aboriginal groups would be dolled out 5% of that $25 million.

It was a noble goal. But it was poorly defined by the NDP leadership during the campaign, and instead the issue was defined by the Sask Party who were able to use the program as an economic boogeyman that would give yet another (to borrow a term from Yorkton MLA Greg Ottenbreit) 'hand out' to the Aboriginals in Saskatchewan.

The Sask Party ran with the issue and was able to define it, while the NDP left defending the program to the local candidates and volunteers. The Sask Party even targeted NDP voters (through a massive phone campaign) by asking if they agreed with the program.

The issue became a nail in the NDP coffin, and was likely a factor in defeating several incumbent NDP MLAs and quite a few hopefuls who were almost shoe-ins for their constituency.

So, considering the impact that the program had on the election, it's not surprising that the NDP came out today and announced that they would not be including the program in future policy developments. Now, this announcement has received some condemnation from former candidates and long time NDPers.

Defeated Saskatoon Candidate Nicole White, used a quote from a friend on her Facebook to sum up her thoughts: 'There are times when it's important to do what's right rather than what is popular. This is one of those times.' Now, while it is a powerful sentiment; and there is much truth to the phrase...The NDP has to see the writing on the wall.

This program is a noble goal and something that we should work towards in the future...But, the issue itself was a political hand grenade in this election. As much as we'd like to deny it, there was a basis of racism that caused many to turn their backs on the NDP in this election.

Without naming names, I saw this first hand on the campaign. I traveled through Saskatchewan and knocked on many doors through the election, with various campaigns and candidates. And we had people who had been supporters in the past; or people who were identified as 'soft supporters' in this election cycle, who admitted that they could not vote for the NDP because of the revenue sharing plan.

It was always prefaced with the phrase, 'I'm not racist, but...'; and to borrow a phrase from Bill Maher, 'If you have to preface a phrase with the term, I'm not racist but...You're racist.'

We like to think we're above such things, but the sad truth is many people are not. There are stereotypes that all of us buy into. Yes, I have my own stereotypes about people, as I'm sure many people reading this blog do as well. Anyone who says they don't, is lying. We all have some little thing that we just instinctively believe about a certain group or people.

Granted, some of us (like myself) try very hard to overcome these stereotypes and views that many of us grew up with or have experienced in our lives; but some of us are content to keep the status quo.

Racism played a factor in the NDP record defeat; and it is embarrassing to admit but it is true. As such, the NDP really has no choice but to back away from this program for now. Maybe in a few years time, perceptions will have improved. But, there's no promise in that.

However, there is one way to defuse the situation. The NDP can recommit to this program, but there needs to be some changes to occur ahead of time.

Firstly, the NDP must define the program before the Saskatchewan Party has a chance to. They need to make it simple, explain what it does and what it doesn't do, and how it will impact non-Aboriginal Saskatchewan residents.

Secondly, the NDP needs a price tag. Lingenfelter was unable to commit to a price tag, as it would require years of negotiation with Aboriginal groups to determine how much the program would cost. The NDP has four years right now to being negotiations with Aboriginal groups and start getting numbers and costing details. While it may not create an agreement within four years time, it would be the first step in getting a cost for the program.

By having a cost, the NDP can counter any Sask Party claims about how much the program will cost. As such, the NDP should look into negotiating such a program with Aboriginals during their time in opposition in order to revive the program without some of the criticisms as before.

Of course, overcoming the racist part is going to be trickier. I'd like to think human beings could enlighten themselves over the course of four years...But, we've existed as a species for thousands of years. And during that time, we've always had trouble with people who are different than us. Look at the battle for civil rights for African Americans. Look at the battle for equal rights for women. Look at the on-going battle for civil/equal rights for the LGBT community...

I'm hopeful, but I'm not blindly optimistic. Humans have come far in our short time on this planet, but we haven't come far enough. And four years just doesn't seem like enough time to change that. I would love to be proven wrong on this point, but sadly, I think this point will still stand in four years time.

I think that more or less covers Aboriginal issues for now. I was planning on talking a bit about SaskTel's managers getting the axe today, but I will save that instead for tomorrow or later this week...As this post seems complete as it is.

I'd like to close on this thought: There are many of us out there to subscribe to the idea of a higher power. In the bulk of the teachings of these groups, human dignity and respect is often a cornerstone of these beliefs. We want to respect each other, we want to help each other, and we want to care for one another. Those are tenants that people claim to live their lives by. But when the going gets tough and we are called upon to care for our fellow man, many of us turn our backs on those tenants.

Some of us use excuses to justify our hypocrisy with our faith; while others simply remain blind to the problem.

Which brings me to a closing quote from Stephen Colbert:

"...either we have to pretend that Jesus was just as selfish as we are, or we've got to acknowledge that He commanded us to love the poor and serve the needy without condition and then admit that we just don't want to do it.


Anonymous said...

I completely agree with your statement "Racism played a factor in the NDP record defeat; and it is embarrassing to admit but it is true."

But I completely disagree with your conclusion that "As such, the NDP really has no choice but to back away from this program for now."

For your information, the NDP is not just about winning elections. In my years as an activist, I have learned that the NDP is about social justice and equality for all. As such, it angers me, to say the least, that you would so readily dismiss and forego justice in favour of an election win.

In fact, I would name your argument a racist one. And, I would say it's an indication of how far we in Saskatchewan must go to eliminate racism in this province once and for all!

Scott said...

Well, I must say I'm a bit taken a back by your comment. But, I shall try my best to answer your concerns.

I did indeed say that the NDP had no choice but to back away from the program...But I also mentioned ways that the NDP could come back to the program, just a few paragraphs later.

As I stated, the NDP needs to address two concerns outside of the racism factor; and that revolves around starting negotiations with First Nations and getting a rough idea on the cost of the program.

The NDP should pursue this program, in my opinion, but they need to get the ball rolling now. Lingenfelter suggested the negotiation process could take as long as ten years; and we've got four years of opposition ahead of us, which gives us time to sit down and start those negotiations and bridge building processes with First Nations groups in Saskatchewan.

The other thing the NDP needs to do is flesh out this program in a way that makes it crystal clear to all citizens of Saskatchewan, Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal. The SK Party was able to use this as a wedge issue simply because it remained poorly defined by the NDP during the campaign...

And it remained poorly defined because the NDP didn't want to speak to the issue before negotiating with the Aboriginals in the province. It was a double-edged sword, which unfortunately, came back around and stabbed us.

It was the right thing to do (not commit to anything without getting input from the Aboriginal community) but it allowed the SK Party to define the issue.

Now, I never said that the NDP should abandon the issue. If I was in favour of abandoning it, I would have presented options the party could take to reintroduce the proposal in a way that allows them to frame the debate.

I realize that perhaps it's possible my words could have been misconstrued, but that was not my intention. I don't think the section of the post came across as racist, as you have suggested; but if it has, I assure you that was not my intention and I apologize deeply for it.

The NDP does need to embrace this policy, but we need to do it in a smarter way. All policies need to be considered and presented in a way that allow you to frame the debate, not the other side.

If we find ourselves in that situation, you're always playing catch-up...And during an election campaign, if you're always playing catch-up that means you're always running behind.

The plan is a good plan; and there are ways to fix it, if the NDP will take the initiative to do so. But as it was presented in this election, and quickly mastered by the Sask Party, the NDP has to back away from it for the moment.

Only when we have restructured the plan and are able to define it for ourselves, will we have a resource sharing plan that stands a chance of actually being brought forward.

Scott said...

*Slight typo, in the 7th paragraph, it should read WOULDN'T instead of would.