Cool the rhetoric on First Nation reforms

The recent Idle No More protests probably say as much about the tactlessness of the federal Conservatives as it does about the unreasonableness of some First Nation activists.

The recent Idle No More protests probably say as much about the tactlessness of the federal Conservatives as it does about the unreasonableness of some First Nation activists, who seem all too keen to ascribe the most nefarious motives to what are, by and large, some pretty bland and benign reforms.

A large share of the blame is probably owed to Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s preference to ram through unrelated legislation that’s larded into massive, omnibus bills. As Harper himself noted while he sat in Opposition, this is an affront to our parliamentary system of democracy, by ensuring that proposed laws don’t receive adequate scrutiny by our legislators.

Blame also the federal government’s desire to dilute environmental protections to ease the way to building a pipeline from Alberta’s oilsands to the Pacific. Here, Harper is learning the same lesson that Yukon Premier Darrell Pasloski is trying to digest, after he removed the Kaska’s veto over oil and gas development in the southeast.

In both cases, these moves have created suspicion and mistrust among aboriginal leaders who are still able to hold up developments with lawsuits and roadblocks. By eroding trust with needed partners, these legislative changes are probably setbacks for both governments.

But even if Harper presented his forms with more diplomatic skill, it’s probable that he’d still run up against opposition. That, after all, has been the fate of pretty much any effort to make First Nation governments more transparent and accountable, as some of the Conservative reforms would do.

The First Nations Financial Transparency Act would require bands that fall under the Indian Act to publicly disclose their annual financial statements, including the salaries of chief and council. Canadians already expect our municipal leaders, MLAs and MPs to meet this level of disclosure, but efforts to extend this transparency to Indian Act bands has typically provoked fierce opposition, much of which is cloaked in accusations of racism.

What’s really racist, we’d submit, is the assumption that First Nation citizens somehow deserve to be ruled by governments often shrouded by secrecy. First Nation leaders, being just as human as the rest of us, are no less susceptible to corruption or inflated senses of self-worth.

When this newspaper polled the territory’s First Nation leaders two years ago and asked each to disclose how much they earned in the spirit of accountability, only three initially agreed. Five more eventually disclosed.

Seven declined to say how much they earned. Among them were Grand Chief Ruth Massie, and Mike Smith, then-chief of the Kwanlin Dun, now Yukon’s regional chief of the Assembly of First Nations.

The stock answer provided by chiefs is that they provide this information to members – but not the public. But it isn’t unusual to find members who claim they aren’t given this information either.

Unfortunately, the Conservatives’ accountability measures will only apply to the Yukon’s three unsigned First Nations.

So, if many First Nation residents want assurances that they’re getting good value for the money from their leaders, they will need to get it by demanding accountability, and voting out of office those who don’t deliver.

As for the rest of the federal legislation that’s drawn the wrath of Idle No More, much of it doesn’t affect the Yukon, either because the laws concern reserves, which we don’t have, or only apply to our three unsigned First Nations. Even if the measures did apply, we see no big reason for concern.

Changes to the Navigable Waters Protection Act has been condemned for lifting protection from many important rivers, including the Yukon’s Peel. But reviews by the Yukon Environmental and Socio-economic Assessment Board are triggered by plenty of things other than the federal statute in question, and the territory’s assessors don’t expect the change to affect their jobs.

Another initiative that’s at the heart of the protests would make it easier for First Nations to lease land. Described by critics as a plot to “privatize” reserves, this measure is, in fact, entirely voluntary, and has been called for by various First Nations for years as a way for members to tap the equity in their homes.

Even changes aimed to provide safe drinking water on reserves have been denounced. Perhaps it’s reasonable to worry about whether adequate funding will be provided to meet these new guidelines, but that’s a poor reason to oppose a measure that could save children from contracting potentially deadly water-borne diseases.

The mismatch between rhetoric and reality on these contested bills probably says a lot about the emotional needs of some protesters to always view Harper as the bogeyman. (It’s hard to escape notice that the leader of the protests in Whitehorse, Cherish Clarke, is a dyed-in-the-wool Liberal.) But one consequence of this overreach is that it makes Harper seem like the adult in the room, which is probably not the desired effect.

If Idle No More doesn’t amount to a coherent political platform, it can still be viewed as an understandable expression of outrage that the quality of life on many First Nation communities still lag far behind the rest of Canada. That’s a sentiment we should all be able to agree on. But it’s too simplistic to lay all the blame on the federal government.

Ottawa spends $10 billion annually on First Nation affairs. Lawyers and consultants have benefitted handsomely from these contributions, but often the same cannot be said of actual First Nation constituents. Many Canadians want greater assurance that new piles of cash will be well spent.

If Harper were truly callous towards First Nation affairs, he’d do what’s easy: nothing. Instead, some of the government reforms promise to do some modest good. It may not usher in the radical new relationship that protesters want, but since when is incremental improvement a bad thing – especially when tall promises so often prove to be disappointments?