Joe Oliver’s Speech Coloured By “Racism”: First Nations Grand Chief

Published in the Vancouver Observer | March 21, 2012 | Circulation: 150,000 unique monthly visitors

Re-published in the Huffington Post Canada | March 22, 2012 | Circulation: 1.9 million unique monthly visitors

Natural resources minister Joe Oliver accused of racist bias after suggesting that First Nations communities were “socially dysfunctional”. File photo by David P. Ball

Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver was dogged by criticism in Vancouver today for describing many First Nations communities as “socially dysfunctional” at a Vancouver Board of Trade breakfast today.

Questioned on the remarks by reporters, Oliver said he was merely speaking about a lack of economic opportunities, and denied accusations of paternalism towards First Nations people. But the head of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs, which represents First Nations in BC, said Oliver’s comments are representative of a pattern.

“It goes beyond paternalism – there’s definitely a colour of racism in a lot of his remarks towards Indigenous or Aboriginal or First Nations people,” Grand Chief Stewart Phillip told The Vancouver Observer.

“We certainly don’t appreciate those incredibly ignorant public declarations. It serves no purpose but to intensify an already volatile situation. It’s not helpful. Regardless of his excuses, his intent is very clear: shamelessly cheerleading the corporate agenda as it pertains to these large-scale resource development projects.”

“It’s about the environment, stupid”

In his speech, the Natural Resources Minister suggested that First Nations communities could benefit from development projects such as the proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway oil sands pipeline.

“The developments we are looking at have the capacity to be truly transformative to a lot of Aboriginal communities,” he said. “This is really a tremendous opportunity to transform communities that have been socially dysfunctional, that haven’t had economic opportunities, haven’t had employment opportunities.” 

Oliver later defended his comments, insisting that the federal government was “very respectful of the traditional way of life of Aboriginal communities”.

“It’s up to them of course to preserve what they believe is worthy of preserving. We’re not taking a paternalistic approach in that regard,” he said.

“But what these projects bring is an enhanced economic opportunity which doesn’t have to be inconsistent with some of their core values.”

Philip, however, disagreed with Oliver’s suggestions.

“First Nations are gravely concerned about the government of Canada and the province of British Columbia colluding to essentially gut the environmental assessment process,” Phillip responded, “to do away with any sense of rigorous standards, and transform the environmental processes into a pro-industry rubber stamping process.

“Quite frankly, it’s about the environment, stupid. It’s not about Minister Oliver’s misguided and completely skewed notions.”

Controversial statements

Oliver stirred up controversy earlier this year after after he called pipeline critics “foreign special interests” with a “radical ideological agenda”. He also said in a speech at the  Manning Networking Conference on Friday that opponents to the Enbridge Northern Gateway oil sands pipeline project were driven by a “naive ideology”.

Recently, his election has also come to attention in the so-called robo-calls voter suppression scandal – now growing to up to 100 ridings across the country –  although no link to a Conservative campaign has been proven. The former investment banker and lawyer beat Liberal MP Joe Volpe by 4,000 votes in his Eglington-Lawrence riding – with Jewish constituents reporting hoax Liberal phone calls on the Sabbath, and thousands of irregularities with voter registration, according to the Toronto Star.

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