Divide and conquer: Indigenous peoples, the budget, and a chat with Romeo Saganash

Published in Rabble.ca | March 30, 2012 | Circulation: 250,000 unique monthly readers

Member of Parliament, and former NDP leadership contender, Romeo Saganash. Photo by David P. Ball

When it comes to Indigenous communities, today’s federal budget, unsurprisingly, smacks of the paternalism for which Canada is infamous.

Some Aboriginal leaders saw benefits. That’s the nature of divide and conquer: there are bonuses.

The budget earmarked $275 million for education and training in Indigenous communities (over three years), and $331 million to improve reserve water systems (over two years). A First Nations anti-violence program got a $12 million boost, as well.

Finance minister Jim Flaherty said the Conservatives want to “unlock the potential of Canada’s First Nations children.”

And yet, the budget continues an arbitrary cap on spending for reserves, which is barred from rising more than two per cent, something many have identified as a barrier to solving many communities’ crises. With poverty at devastating levels, housing and health in crisis, and Native youth questioning their future, surely a funding cap is a cruel notion.

Such a policy is ridden with the paternalism for which Canada has distinguished itself over our history. Whether it’s the residential schools’ attempt to exterminate Indigenous languages and culture, or assimilation policies to “end the Indian problem,” even the idea that First Nations children are “Canada’s” at all is deeply troubling. Particularly in light of the fact that there are now more Indigenous children in state custody than ever were in the schools.

In fact, the government has also promised a law to demand accountability for Indigenous schools — the First Nations Education Act — as if accountability to Ottawa is the major problem facing these communities. Meddling? Yes, meddling. And with the important but toothless Truth and Reconciliation Commission underway here in B.C. currently, it is a wonder the government even dares to name itself the arbiter of “accountability” when it comes to Native schooling.

The Conservatives also gave a budgetary nod to their dream of introducing a private property system to reserves, ending communal ownership the Tories see as a cause of poverty. This not only fails to recognize that oppression, not tradition, is the cause of poverty. Private ownership risks undermining traditional connection to the land (even if reserve land is but a fraction of Indigenous nations’ rightful territories).

I know few fans of the ministry of Aboriginal Affairs (formerly Indian and Northern Affairs). No one could deny it has had a key part to play in colonization — from the prison warden-like Indian Agents of yore, to kidnapping children with the help of the RCMP, and undermining traditional governance to this day, Aboriginal Affairs is synonymous with the oppression of Indigenous peoples. The same can be said for the entire way funding for communities is leveraged for loyalty, control and dominance.

But, having attempted to undermine and dominate Indigenous nations for a century, will this department’s $252.6 million budget cuts (over three years) reduce its harm? Of course not. Most likely, the cuts will hurt those most dependent upon it, and most marginalized.

The government speaks with a forked tongue: calling pipeline opponents “foreign radicals” and Natives “dysfunctional,” while claiming to respect their choices; pushing treaties while destroying the Kelowna Accord; apologizing for residential schools while Harper claimed Canada “has no history of colonialism”; funding anti-violence for Natives while raiding protest camps with police guns drawn.

“Colonialism,” as theorist Homi Bhabha argues, “often speaks in a tongue that is forked, not false.”

This past year has also seen the New Democratic Party (NDP)’s leadership race, culminating in its anointing Thomas Mulcair as its head last weekend. And while many on the radical left are critical of the notion that meaningful change can come through the political system, the need for resistance on every level — inside and outside the system — is more urgent than ever. Too much is at stake.

The Left Coast Post spoke with the only Indigenous candidate in the NDP race, Romeo Saganash.

Formerly deputy Grand Chief of the Cree Grand Council, Saganash was a core negotiator for the UN’s Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People — a treaty Prime Minister Harper refused to sign for years. The 49-year-old MP in northern Quebec reflected on his campaign, self-determination, and the party’s future.

LEFT COAST POST: Romeo, could you talk about how the federal budget will affect Indigenous peoples?

ROMEO SAGANASH: If there’s one area that’s crucial and foundational to the country, where there’s dire needs to be addressed, it’s Aboriginal issues. There are too many Attawapaskats in this country. We need to address them in a serious manner. (There’s) some money for education (in the budget), but that’s not the only area that needs to be addressed: housing, the importance of treaties, and so on. There’s always underfunding in so many of these areas.

LCP: You endorsed Thomas (Mulcair) after you dropped out of the race. Why did you choose him?

RS: First, I have to say I had the privileged seat of being able to assess all the candidates, having been one myself. I was able to see them in action — a good position to assess what they had to offer.

LCP: And what in particular attracted you to Mulcair?

RS: I decided based on my understanding of what we need now to meet our challenges — not only as a party, but as a country. Not only that, but we need to preserve what we achieved in Quebec. Tom is the best person to maintain our gains and grow in Quebec — he was my choice on that one.

LCP: How do you see the way forward for the NDP, now the race is over?

RS: If the NDP wants to become government in 2015, we need to reach out to the 40 per cent who didn’t vote — that’s more than the number of people who voted Conservative. We need to understand why they feel excluded from the electoral process. First Nations and Aboriginal people in general are a portion of the Canadian population that did not participate highly in the election.

LCP: Could you talk about engaging Indigenous communities as a party? What does the NDP offer?

RS: I found, through my travels throughout the country, that many First Nations people recently discovered the NDP. They had the opportunity to listen to what the NDP stands for with Aboriginal issues. We need to continue the work we started there. Aboriginal leaders, in particular, realize they have to stay involved in the democratic process in this country. (Decisions about) their future, lands and resources are taken in Ottawa, so we need to have a say within the institutions — particularly among youth. I can help in that area.

LCP: So what’s next for the NDP?

RS: We need to reach out to suburbs and rural areas, too. The NDP has been — not rejected — but we didn’t make the gains we’d hoped in rural areas. That’s our traditional territory as the NDP.

LCP: Could you talk about how Tom (Mulcair) can help with this task?

RS: He’s a leader from Quebec, but who also understands the east, west and north of this country. Tom, as a former minister of the environment, understands the dynamics between cities, rural areas and the North. I thought he was the best possible candidate. Obviously, French was a factor — being bilingual is important. Consider that many supported Paul (Dewar), but in spite of his qualities and skills, he finished fifth on the first ballot. I thought, ‘It’s understandable why Quebeckers are concerned about French. But when people in B.C. are concerned, there’s a problem.’

LCP: Did you speak to Mulcair about his approach to First Nations concerns? What will he be like?

RS: All the candidates were very much aware and informed on First Nations issues and about Aboriginal issues in general. That’s not a problem within the NDP. To show that, look at my (campaign) team: after I withdrew, my manager went to Paul, others went elsewhere. It showed the diversity on my team. I didn’t tell my team to go where I went — that’s not my style.

LCP: Much of the discussion this race hinged on Quebec voters, and yet historically there has been some tension between Indigenous sovereignty and Quebec sovereignty, hasn’t there? For instance, during constitutional talks. Is that a concern?

RS: The leader we have is perfectly capable of speaking to Quebec and English Canada. There’s no problem there, he’s got a good handle on that. The debate over Quebec sovereignty will happen, if it happens again. In the case of the Cree, in the last referendum we recognized Quebec has the right to self-determination for its people. The Cree people recognized that in 1995 (the referendum). The important aspect was that Aboriginal peoplealso have the right to self-determination. But I don’t think it’s going to come up again in my political lifetime.

LCP: Did you discuss your leadership endorsement with Mulcair or his campaign?

RS: No. People were saying, ‘You have to negotiate your support.’ I said, ‘I’m not that kind of person.’

LCP: Has Mulcair discussed shadow cabinet appointments with you?

RS: One thing I respect in the political process is the prerogative (leaders) have to nominate who they want. It’s a fundamental prerogative of the leader. That was the case for Jack (Layton) too, and I deeply respect that.

LCP: So what’s next for the NDP?

RS: For now, lots of meetings. Budget day. I should add that (other MPs) did a tremendous job while we were absent. They kept the fort during the leadership race. Not many people talk about that in the media, the great job they did, including our interim leader.

LCP: When do you expect the shadow cabinet to be appointed?

RS: Upon our return (from Easter holidays), that’s when it will be decided, probably.

LCP: What was the highlight of your leadership campaign?

RS: (laughs) Actually, there’s a lot of them! They’ll be part of a book coming out this fall, first in French, then hopefully in English. The highlight was the unique opportunity to travel to every corner of Canada. Most of us have been in the (political) business for a long time, but to go to small communities — First Nations or not — that was the highlight.

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