“Father Knows Best” and Alberta’s First Nations

Posted by on Apr 16, 2012 in Blog, News

On Saturday Trish Audette wrote in the Edmonton Journal that environmental issues have been missing from the two election campaigns taking place now. She might also have said the same about First Nations.

This omission is perhaps most glaring in the “other Alberta election,” for three coveted senator-in-waiting positions. Since this race is for a federal appointment the lack of discussion about First Nations is surprising given that the federal government has constitutional “responsibility” (I hate the paternalistic assumptions that some see in that language). Following the links on the Elections Alberta website I see that only myself (when talking about First Nations post-secondary education in my Empowering Albertans video), Len Bracko, Elizabeth Johannson, Doug Black, and Scott Tannas have mentioned First Nations at all.

Given the antipathy Dr. Tom Flanagan, the provincial Wildrose campaign manager, has for First Nations it’s probably tactically wise for the Wildrose senatorial candidates not to tell voters what they would advocate when it comes to First Nations’ issues if they go to Ottawa.

No senatorial nominee candidate has said enough to this point in time and I’m going to start to correct my record now. I hope the other candidates will do the same.

This morning I had a great meeting and a very informative conversation with Cameron Alexis, Grand Chief of the Confederacy of Treaty No. 6 First Nations. I appreciated the opportunity to listen to Grand Chief Alexis’s views and look forward to supporting those views in the Canadian Senate.

The Grand Chief’s message is easy for me to carry to Ottawa. Why? Because his views stress the importance of respect and empowerment. It’s time, I heard the Grand Chief say, for the Harper government to give more than just its signature to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Ottawa must implement the spirit of this aspirational, non-binding declaration. Ottawa needs to show more respect to First Nations when it comes to honouring Canada’s Treaties with First Nations. And, Ottawa (Alberta too) must do a better job of fulfilling its constitutional duty to consult with First Nations.

Grand Chief Alexis offered housing as one excellent example of where Ottawa is not empowering First Nations and not treating the Treaty relationship with respect. The amount of money the Alexis First Nation receives from the federal government for housing falls miles short of meeting the demands of his people and our fellow Albertans. The Harper government must do better. The federal treaty relationship with First Nations demands it.

The same needs to be said about post-secondary education and training. This inherent, treaty, and human right is being denied to Canada’s First Nations. I’m sure both Mr. Black and Mr. Tannas know that the Harper government supports the 2% cap on First Nations post-secondary education funding instituted in 1996-97. Every year thousands of First Nations youth who are ready to enroll in post-secondary education are denied the opportunity because of this cap. The 2% cap has denied more than 15,000 First Nations young people the very thing – a university diploma or degree – we know virtually eliminates the gap in employment rates between First Nations and non-aboriginal people.

“Clearly,” said a 2010 policy paper prepared for the Assembly of First Nations (AFN), “education is a long-term predictor of lifetime success, earning potential and the ability of First Nations people to be significant contributors to their families, communities and society as a whole.” It’s long past time for the federal government to start treating First Nations education as such.

Governments, as I point out in the classroom, should welcome the Supreme Court’s position that the constitutional duty to consult also may demand accommodation and compensation. They don’t. They should recognize that this constitutional duty to consult demands consultation with First Nations before major land use decisions such as granting oil sands leases are made. They don’t. They should recognize that reconciliation between this land’s first peoples and the settlers demands nothing less. They don’t.

Mr. Tannas has identified First Nations issues as among the “big stuff” he’d tackle in the Senate. I’ve looked at what he proposes and see it as nothing more than a market version of the “Father Knows Best” behaviour non-aboriginal governments are infamous for. It’s a “one size fits all” approach to First Nations that is blind to many of the realities of life on Alberta’s reserves.

Mr. Black, for his part, supports post-secondary education and training. How can he support this goal and propose to First Nations and other voters that he would sit in the Senate as a member of the Harper Conservative government – a government that denies these opportunities to thousands of First Nations youth?

Ottawa needs to invest in the future of First Nations. It needs to implement the recommendations outlined in the AFN policy paper mentioned above. In particular it needs to more than double the First Nations post-secondary education budget AND accept that “the PSE program be First Nations driven and administered, thereby reflecting true First Nation jurisdiction and self-governance over education.”

Similar measures with respect to stable, certain dollars and jurisdiction should be implemented with respect to housing.

Respect and empowerment – that’s what I will try to help Alberta’s First Nations achieve. On April 23rd help send this independent Albertan to the Canadian Senate to start building the more inclusive Alberta we all deserve.