Death by a Thousand Cuts

Martin Papillon and Michael Orsini

Hardly a week passes without the news of yet another Aboriginal organization losing its federal funding, and being forced to shut down as a result.

The hit list thus far includes the First Nations Statistical Institute, the National Aboriginal Health Organization and the National Centre for First Nations Governance. The health promotion programming and research capacity of some key organizations, such as the Assembly of First Nations, Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami and the Native Women’s Association of Canada, have also been scaled back following federal cuts, the exact details of which have not been made public.

Which group might be next is anyone’s guess.

Budget cuts, of course, are always about much more than fighting the deficit. Where governments choose to cut tells us something about what they value, and how they understand the public good. Federal funding cuts to Aboriginal organizations are part of a worrying trend in silencing advocacy and capacity-building in sectors of civil society that may not share the views and priorities of the current government.

These cuts are also disconcerting given the oft-repeated commitment of this government to improve the living conditions of Aboriginal peoples. Some of the organizations that recently saw their funding disappear may have been controversial, even within Aboriginal communities, but they were nonetheless part of a network of organizations at the heart of a nascent, and increasingly diverse, Aboriginal civil society.

Countless studies have shown that a strong and diverse civil society is essential to the development of a healthy, democratic society. Research from the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development demonstrates, for instance, the importance of institutional capacity-building at the local level in breaking the cycle of dependency that has marred Aboriginal communities for far too long. This is precisely what these organizations were trying to do.

Related: The Peaceful Struggle of Canada's First Nations

The 1960s ended with the much-maligned White Paper, a policy document that sought to restructure the relationship between First Nations peoples and the federal government, and dismantle the so-called Aboriginal bureaucracy. While the White Paper ignited a wave of Aboriginal protest the likes of which Canada had never seen, the Harper government’s latest round of budget cuts is likely to do greater damage, but without the sound and fury that touched off a political firestorm more than four decades ago.

The main casualty of this government’s new attack on Aboriginal peoples is the policy capacity – collection, research, analysis, policy development and dissemniation – of this fledgling civil society. That’s not exactly the kind of stuff to mobilize the masses.

Some Aboriginal organizations spend considerable effort trying to increase policy capacity and knowledge by conducting or soliciting research. For example, the National Aboriginal Health Organization, which lost all of its funding last month, provided a unique forum for thinking through the complex commitments of Aboriginal people and non-Aboriginals in improving Aboriginal health outcomes. While the organization may have had its detractors – as has been suggested by federal Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq – it filled an important void on the Aboriginal health policy landscape. Suggesting that it was “controversial” or faced “governance challenges” does not justify budgeting it out of existence. The Congress of Aboriginal Peoples (CAP), which represents Métis and off-reserve populations, is also considered controversial by some, but so far it has been spared the budget axe. Coincidentally, CAP’s former leader, Patrick Brazeau, was named to the Senate recently by Stephen Harper.

Related: Aboriginal Incarceration: A Black Mark for Canada

Another way to interpret these cuts is as part of a broader strategy to get out of the business of federal responsibility for Aboriginal people through a process of what political scientist Jacob Hacker has called “policy drift.” Rather than initiate sweeping and observable policy changes, governments can have incremental “change without change.” There is no need for a new White Paper, which might mobilize a powerful counter movement as it did in the 1970s. The new strategy is a slow, concerted attempt to undermine Aboriginal civil society, and to gut Aboriginal communities of their ability to do the important policy work and advocacy that might improve the deplorable conditions they face.

The programs cut played a vital role in rebuilding communities that have long been governed directly through the heavy hand of Ottawa’s bureaucracy. What’s more, some of these organizations axed by the budget were not rabble-rousers, anxious to be a thorn in the side of government. Rather, they were busy doing that most threatening of activities: research.

While these cuts are indeed aimed at Aboriginal people, they should also be viewed in the context of a broader, ideologically motivated attack on science and policy-relevant research, especially the kind of research that might stand to embarrass this government. Some of the organizations targeted by the Conservatives were guilty of the offence of producing studies and reports that highlighted some of the problems facing Aboriginal people. Muzzling them will do little to rid us of the complex issues they have sought to highlight.

Photo courtesy of Reuters