Harper and Idle No More: The choice to co-operate or confront

Paul Wells on Spence’s hunger strike and two ways forward

For a few hours on Jan. 11, several Aboriginal leaders, including Grand Chief Shawn Atleo of the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) and Matthew Coon Come, the long-time Quebec Cree leader, were in the Langevin Block meeting with Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Across the street, a succession of other figures in Aboriginal politics, some wearing Mohawk Warrior Society insignia, took turns speaking to an outdoor protest rally.

If nothing else, it was an efficient distribution of labour. Leaders who want to make concrete progress this year were inside the building, talking to the Prime Minister. Leaders who don’t were outside, doing what they do best.

It’s not that the people at the protest microphone don’t want First Nations’ lives to improve. It’s just that their preferred solutions—a fundamental rethink of Canada’s treaty obligations, a royal commission, an intervention from the Queen—are not on offer. And when I say “not on offer,” I don’t only mean not from the Conservatives. The extent to which NDP Leader Tom Mulcair has aligned himself with Atleo and the other leaders who are still talking with Harper is striking. So is the silence of the provincial premiers, who will have to share their resource revenues with First Nations if revenue-sharing is to be part of a solution. So the crowd outside was, in a very real sense, making best the enemy of the good.

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The Jan. 11 meeting follows all the attention Chief Theresa Spence of Attawapiskat attracted when she swore off solid food. Her publicity campaign probably sped up a meeting that was going to happen anyway. Atleo had met with Harper at the Prime Minister’s office on Nov. 28 to discuss some kind of follow-up to last year’s Crown-First Nations gathering. Atleo was in frequent contact with Nigel Wright, Harper’s chief of staff; I’m told the two met on New Year’s Eve, among other occasions. But “because of Spence,” a government source tells me, the AFN “asked for the meeting to be a bit earlier, which was fine with us.”

Independent audits raise serious questions about Spence’s management of money from the federal government in Attawapiskat, questions she has refused to address. Her diet of broth, tea and vitamins stretches the term “hunger strike.” But the publicity she drew probably also moved the Jan. 11 meeting closer to the top of Harper’s political agenda. Everything about the meeting—venue, locale, agenda—was decided by political staffers in the Prime Minister’s Office, not by bureaucrats in the Privy Council or at Aboriginal Affairs. The first word out of the meeting was that there will be more, and soon. Together these suggest Harper plans to spend much of 2013 taking Aboriginal issues more seriously.

Spence deserves some credit for that. But ever since she skipped the Langevin Block meeting—and then left a reception that evening at Rideau Hall in protest over some unexplained failure of protocol that none of her fellow visitors noticed—Spence has been running out of supporters. Mulcair, Coon Come and former governor general Michaëlle Jean have called on her to return to a normal diet. If she continues, she risks permanent damage to at least one of two things: her health and her credibility.

Harper put some dents in his own credibility in 2012, which the Aboriginal protest movement was smart to exploit. When he was an opposition politician, he had no patience for omnibus legislation that makes serious consideration of a nest of unrelated initiatives impossible. Just because he’s changed his mind doesn’t mean his critics are required to leave his own overstuffed omnibus bills alone. And he spent the year getting lectured about Aboriginal relations by people who are usually allies. Jim Prentice, his own former Indian affairs minister, wrote last July that “the constitutional obligation to consult with First Nations is not a corporate obligation. It is the federal government’s responsibility.” Conflicts with local Aboriginal populations over resource projects “cannot be resolved by regulatory fiat,” Prentice added. “They require negotiation.”

This should have been obvious to the Prime Minister sooner. In retrospect, a lot of his behaviour a year ago seems out of character. He boasted about big results before he had delivered them. He named his enemies—environmental groups and the environmental-review process—before moving against them, a display of bravado that let his opponents know where to build up defences. He announced a televised meeting with hundreds of Aboriginal leaders and was surprised when they all wanted to talk.

He has returned to methods that have more chance of success. No more TV cameras covering his meetings. No more boasting. His goal, the government source I spoke to said, is to match “an obvious need”—atrocious living conditions in too many First Nations communities—with “a whole lot of economic activity out in the hinterland.”

Treating Aboriginal populations as though they were opponents in his game of resource development worked about as well as Harper should have expected it would. Treating them as allies may work better. He now knows that if co-operation fails, he will strengthen the hand of other leaders who prefer confrontation.

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