Robert Nault, former Indian affairs minister, on Idle No More

Chief Theresa Spence is creating a ‘pressure cooker’

by John Geddes

Robert Nault is watching the First Nations protests now dominating Canadian news from a unique perspective. As Jean Chrétien’s Indian affairs minister from 1999 to 2003, Nault tried to modernize the way reserve communities manage their finances and elect their councils. But the Assembly of First Nations vilified him for it, and the Liberal government abandoned his reform push after Paul Martin took over from Chrétien as prime minister. Nault now divides his time between Northern Ontario and British Columbia, working as a consultant and negotiator for First Nations communities. He spoke with Maclean’s by phone today; this is an edited version of the conversation:

Q What do you think would need to happen for the “Idle No More”  protests to open a path toward real progress?

A I think we have to get away from just the government and the Assembly of First Nations, and start looking at some form of all-party committee that’s been given a green light to work with Aboriginal leadership.

Q Why has progress been so painfully slow, or non-existent, for so long?

A One problem is that we’re trying to do this nationally, with all First Nations at the table all at the same time, when they are all at different stages in their preparedness or willingness to see change. What you’ve got to do is allow First Nations to opt in when they are ready. Start with First Nations in British Columbia, where they seem ready to move forward. And start with education.

Q Why tackle education first?

A You need to get away from a single reserve, often a small community, having a school board and all the structure that goes with it. You have to connect First Nations education with the rest of the education system, which is provincially run.

Q But wouldn’t that require complicated negotiations between the federal government, with its responsibility for First Nations, and provincial governments, with their education jurisdiction? You’re not suggesting provinces pay for schooling on reserves, are you?

A I just think they need to be connected. Teachers can’t be isolated because they work in a First Nation community. That’s why you see teachers quitting so often. They really do need the support that goes with being part of a larger group. We wouldn’t transfer jurisdiction for First Nations education to provinces. We would connect them together so they could have greater success. First Nations education is being underfunded grossly, and because of that kids are not getting the same education on reserve and they do off reserve.

Q Because of the reforms you attempted as Indian affairs minister, your name is sometimes associated with calls for band councils to be made more accountable. What do you think of the Conservative government’s First Nations Financial Transparency Act?

A Well, it’s a very small piece of the puzzle. I never looked at transparency from the aspect of First Nations being transparent for the federal government; I looked at it as transparency for First Nations citizens. That’s the way it should work, not the First Nations being accountable to Ottawa. There’s a lot more to governance than that. The biggest problem [for small reserve communities] is they are having trouble keeping up with the paperwork because they don’t have the staff to do it. They never have. That’s been overlooked over and over again.

Q What do you think of Chief Theresa Spence’s hunger strike?

A I don’t think that’s the way to approach this. You create a pressure cooker. No matter what the Prime Minister does next Friday [in his planned meeting with an Assembly of First Nations delegation, including Spence] he won’t meet expectations, because it’s not that simple. It’s not appropriate for elected leaders to put their lives at risk. I don’t think we need to go that far in our country.




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Robert Nault, former Indian affairs minister, on Idle No More

  1. “What you’ve got to do is allow First Nations to opt in when they are ready. Start with First Nations in British Columbia, where they seem ready to move forward. And start with education.

    Harper has been doing that for years. So point for Harper, right?

    • “You need to get away from a single reserve, often a small community, having a school board and all the structure that goes with it. You have to connect First Nations education with the rest of the education system, which is provincially run.”
      The government tried to organize meeting to work toward this goal, but the chiefs refused to attend because they said it would erode their sovereignty.

      • Yeah, and then today, two Global reporters are removed from Attawapiskat by police while Native protesters blocking rail lines aren’t removed for days, are not arrested, and when a judge finally orders a removal order, the OPP is afraid to take action only to wait hours for the RCMP to remove the Native protesters.

        What is going on in Canada? What is going on with the media?

        • Are media given free reign with the Harper government and his Ministers? No. Harper shuns the media and only appears very briefly with carefully scripted words, and answers maybe three questions from journalists he prefers?

          • I guess you don’t watch many of Harper’s interactions with the media.

            Harper does not shun the media. He has given many interviews over the past few weeks. And one interview in particular had been praised by some as being very informative indeed.

          • Harper’s (well known) policies regarding media are: Carefully scripted encounters; No questions that have not been vetted beforehand; No reporter who goes off script will be allowed to ask another question… ever.

            During the last election, the Media Pool that traveled with the Harper Campaign were allowed 5 questions between the whole pool. Again, no questions that were not vetted and, going off script meant you were off the bus. Campaign stops were run in exactly the same manner.

            So, don’t say he has a good relationship with the media or, ‘gives good interviews.” Pre-scripted “news encounters” are not interviews, they are properly referred to as ‘propaganda’ or, advertising. Since the Harper regime has been in power, they have increased the advertising budget an average of 20% per year. They ran ‘action plan’ ads for 8 months _after_ the program ended because they received good ratings in Polls.

      • When the government tries to set the agenda on only its terms, then how can sovereign nations participate in good faith? Ask yourself that….

        • But you are wrong by saying that the government tries to set the agenda on only its terms and I don’t have to ask myself. All I have to do is listen to what other Native people have to say in this regard.

          Ernie Crey would be a good start. Read and listen to what he has said over the past few days. He appeared on Cross Country Check-up, on The Current, and has some interesting comments available on his facefook page.

          The Native community is not united in this one. There is not one particular outlook taken on by the Native community at large.

          I would suggest you read the following when trying to come to a better understanding of what it means to be able to participate in good faith:

          http://www.thestar.com/news/canada/politics/article/1312117–stephen-harper-should-pick-special-envoy-for-talks-with-native-leaders-tim-harper

          It would be worth your while.

  2. ” The biggest problem [for small reserve communities] is they are having
    trouble keeping up with the paperwork because they don’t have the staff
    to do it. They never have. That’s been overlooked over and over again.”

    Mmmmmm…..really? One Chief, two sub Chiefs and 18 council members and a financial manager on one reserve of 1500 people is not enough to oversee the paperwork? Good grief!

    • The issue is capacity building. There never has been enough of it. It is a recipe for failure to give people responsibilities and money but provide them with no real opportunities to develop real skills to do the job. Access to education and training for elected leaders and staff has been sorely neglected by the Federal government and their agents. This the root cause of many of the problems.

      • Why blame only the Federal government?

        Why not take Pam Palmater as an example: Why is she, as a well educated Native person, not taking the lead by moving to a remote Native reserve to be as role model for elected leaders and staff? Why is Pam Palmater instead installing herself at a university, enhancing the anti-Harper sentiment? What good does that do for the betterment of Native communities across this land?

        May I suggest you watch this video in its entirety:

        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2W0LQ_TE5Gg

        and see what a well educated Native has to offer to her people.

        • Well, for one thing, living in a remote reserve would serve as a role model for just that small population because her access to other people would be limited due to community size and distance. By serving in the capacity that she has now, she is actually putting herself in front of much more people including university students and people nationwide. I think she is doing just fine where she is at and she would obviously be well qualified to be a national leader at some point.

    • I read that the 18 council members weren’t all serving at the same time; there was turnover. At any given time there was only 12 council members.

      • And if that is the case, do you think that 12 council members (plus a schoolboard, plus a financial manager, plus chiefs in various capacity) would suffice for serving their community well?

  3. The ROC needs to learn that FNs are like European countries…..and they’re not going to turn into the EU overnight.

    At this stage, a hunger strike is entirely appropriate….it’s been a couple of centuries after all….at what point are FNs going to say ‘enough’?

    • A couple of centuries and HUNDREDS of BILLIONS of dollars later. All from taxpayers, none from the Natives themselves. How about that? Not enough? Never enough.

      Europeans have learned to make their own living, and have learned to do it very well.

      At what point are Canadians going to say ‘enough’? Actually, it’s very close if you look beyond the Macleans comment boards.

      • Wow! FNs have been scroungers and welfare bums for a couple of centuries now! One wonders how they ever got through the previous 10,000 years without our help.Your historical insights should be recorded for posterity…somewhere or other.

        • Shame on you if you, as a teacher, find it acceptable to put words in my mouth once again.

          I did not write that FN’s have been scroungers and welfare bums for a couple of centuries now. As a teacher I would expect that you, of all people, would be able to properly read my post.

          When you read my sentence again, the one which says “A couple of centuries and HUNDREDS of BILLIONS of dollars later.” which was in response to EmilyOne’s postings, you will hopefully understand that the hundreds of billions of dollars are not in relation to the couple of centuries but in addition of. See the word ‘and’ in between?

          Anyone with a teacher degree would be required to do some simple reading comprehension. Poor students who were educated within your understanding of reading comprehension.

          • I’m not a teacher…you were saying something about reading comprehension.

          • Were you saying something about discrediting yourself even further,

            As per one of your earlier posts:” My wife taught on reserve for three years, while It took a year for me
            to sub………..”

            Subbing for a teacher is not teaching? Try tell that to the teacher’s union.

          • You are an idiot, anyone who can do the job can sub on many reserves, or in small towns in the north if no one else is around – even you. We are polluting up these threads so lets’s end this back and forth…i’m bored with it anyway.

          • “We are polluting up these threads” you say. Really? Now that the going gets tough, the weak wish to pull out?

            So a person doing the sub-teaching is not a teacher. I am so lucky my kids did not have you for a teacher or a sub. There is some rubbish being taught in schools most everywhere these days but your sense of reason is as bad as I have heard it.

            And you call me an idiot?

            It seems to me you have trouble handling the truth.

            Is that why you, as a sub “left after 3 years because that’s what teachers mostly do. The burn out rate is that high – it probably still is.” ?

      • “…none from the Natives”. What about the land you’re working on? Whose land is it? Are you one of those deniers of treaties?

        • No, I am not a treaty denier.

          Native people always have had the rights to the lands. They can use the land’s resources as they see fit. And it is true that for a very long time, the Native people of these lands knew how to live off the land, to let the land provide for them. I am not longer convinced that most modern Natives would know how to do that.

          “The land we are working on”? Which lands are you referring to in that sentence?

          • if it wasnt for the natives most of canada would look like the tarsands

          • You’re an idiot.

  4. ” I don’t think that’s the way to approach this. You
    create a pressure cooker. No matter what the Prime Minister does next
    Friday [in his planned meeting with an Assembly of First Nations
    delegation, including Spence] he won’t meet expectations, because it’s
    not that simple. It’s not appropriate for elected leaders to put their
    lives at risk. I don’t think we need to go that far in our country.”

    At least he does see the light at the end of the tunnel interview.

  5. Paul Martin set back reform over a decade when he obliterated Nault’s reforms to gain aboriginal support for his overthrow of Chretien. Paul Martin promised the chiefs money without accountability, leaving all the failing structures in place. Nault to his credit was seeking accountability.

    Nault is now basically endorsing Harper’s strategy, of voluntary incrementalism, beginning with education, and giving each individual First Nation the option to pursue change at its own pace.

    • Then why did the interviewer not pose such comparison with what Harper is trying to do? Why not?

    • Other than the fact i think you’ve got a point about Martin being wrong to ditch RN [ but if i remember correctly Kelowna did contain accountability benchmarks] i don’t think you were reading the same interview i was. While RN did not particularly diss Harper, he most definitely did not “endorse Harper’s strategy”…not at all imo.

  6. Wonder what Robert Nault thinks about this one:

    Today, January 8, 2013!!!

    “A Global News crew was escorted off the Attawapiskat reserve in northern
    Ontario and threatened with arrest after trying to do a story on living
    conditions in the community.”

    “Police were called, who then threatened to arrest Tryon and Owens with
    trespassing and breaching the peace if the pair didn’t leave. Tryon
    added, “We put up a bit of a fight. We phoned our lawyer. I mean, we
    weren’t here to make enemies. We were here to do a fair and balanced
    story. We certainly didn’t want anyone angry with us, but we also
    wanted to stand our ground a bit too.”

    “”The acting chief said she had gotten a call from Theresa Spence herself telling all media to leave, and as far as I can tell, we’re the only media here, but we’re being told by Theresa Spence herself that we had to leave.”

    • This is NOT the time for media to do some superficial new story on conditions on reserves! The media needs to look deeper-at root causes. Do real investigative AND intellectually rigorous, nuanced reporting. There hasn’t been too much of that so a bit of “knee-jerk reaction” from reserve leadership isn’t much a surprise….

  7. We are living in the year 2013, not in the nineties! Perhaps an interview with the current administration or PM is in order. Or John Geddes could just look at what Coyne has dug up:

    Bill S-8: The Safe Drinking Water for First Nations Act; Bill S-2: The
    Family Homes on Reserve and Matrimonial Interests or Right Act; Bill
    S-6: The First Nations Elections Act; and Bill C-27: The First Nations
    Financial Transparency Act. Oh, and: Bill S-212: The First Nations
    Self-Government Recognition Bill.

    All implemented by the CPC goverment. (Those monsters, right?)

    What is so scary about asking what the current government has accomplished over the past years? Are some interviewers afraid of that they might hear?

    • Yeah, just what is the problem with safe water? with democracy? with women having equal rights?

      What’s the real problem here, you whiners?

      • Listen to yourself! This kind of lack of respect and unwillingness to listen is one of the root causes of strife….

        • So, what would be your take on the Bills I have mentioned above? Why are you reacting in such an uncivilized manner yourself when you condemn it in others?

          • The problem is not the Bills, it is the lack of ‘follow through.’ on the part of the Government. There are about 20 Reserves (or more, depending on which report you read) where the water is toxic and they need to truck in drinking water. The government has done nothing, even though the problem is well-documented and the issues are usually water system and filtration failures. Places near the Tar-Sands have complaining that water quality has been drastically compromised the last 10 years but, the Government has done nothing to assist.

            Stephen Harper apologized to the First Nations over the Residential schools and, pledged full governmental cooperation to find solutions. Now that the cameras are off, his government has blocked access to records by the panel looking into the Residential Schools issue so they can not do any work or, find equatable solutions. They have had to file suit to obtain the files and records that they were promised ‘full access’ to.

            It is the ‘follow-through that is the issue here.

    • “Are some interviewers afraid of that they might hear?”
      I suppose it wouldn’t suit their narrative.

      • I’m seriously beginning to wonder what that narrative might be. I mean, ex-PM Martin, ex-PM Clark both defeated by the voters of this country, but now being asked to give us their opinions.

        And now an interview with an ex Indian Affairs Minister.

        What is the media trying to accomplish with paying special attention to these has-beens? Does the media even want to acknowledge that Mr.Harper is our current PM and that he has done many good things for the Natives already?

        It seems to me that some media members are following an agenda of their own. How sad is that for the Canada of today!

        • May be the fact that the current Minister of Indian Affairs keeps refusing interviews may explain why journalists are turning to other people. What’s the point of talking to Senator Patrick Brazeau or some backbench conservatives who keep repeating the same PMO speaking points irrespective of the questions being asked?

          • I think that if Geddes or anyone else in the MSM would pose the very same questions to Minister Duncan as have been asked within the above relayed interview, then yes, Minister Duncan would grant an interview.

            But the CPC MP’s are not generally asked the most realistic questions by reporters. More like being interrogated.

            Try to stay fair to the CPC and a fair exchange will follow in return.

          • So you’ve got an elaborate theory about the kind of questions Geddes would ask in a hypothetical interview. Have you met John, or do you just like posting 10 comments under his blog posts?

          • I find it necessary to post 10 comments on this blog post because it is about time to hear the other side of the story. When, within the above posted interview, it is abundantly clear that the workable suggestions made by Nault in regards to Native issues, have in fact been made or surpassed by the current government, but within the very same interview not one comment is made in regards to the fact that the current government has proposed the same solutions, in fact has implemented some of them, then I want to let readers know about this obvious omission. And it should be questioned why those omissions occur.

            The coverage of this Native protest has been pulled out of proportion to what has actually happened over time, including Harper’s time.

            One does not need an elaborate theory on anything to see the writing on the wall.

            Intelligent readership requires reasonable coverage. Nothing more.

          • You’re right, it would be good if you actually read [let alone pondered] Mr Nault’s comments in anything other than a partisan light.

          • “When I left my home and my family

            I was no more than a boy

            In the company of strangers

            In the quiet of the railway station running scared

            Laying low, seeking out the poorer quarters

            Where the ragged people go

            Looking for the places only they would know”

            Lie la lie …Lie la Lie…..

        • “Done many ‘good’ things for the ‘Natives’”…. First of all “good” in whose definition? Have you even listened to the reasoning as to why there is so much protest against these ‘good’ things? And, we are peoples–First Nations, Metis, and Inuit, many different sovereign Indigenous nations. Give us the respect we deserve by remembering that when you make statements about us. Eekoshi.

          • I’m not so sure the Idle No More protesters are exactly clear on what it is they demand or not demand. Does anyone know? Do you know what it is the Idle No More movement tries to accomplish here?

            And could you please point out to me when I have ignored the respect you deserve?

  8. What a great post JG!! That was a treat, pity it was so brief. Mr Nault is right on about education. My wife taught on reserve for three years, while It took a year for me to sub because i felt so guilty taking someone else’s job.[ as it was most community members were either to shy or intimidated to do the job] We left after 3 years because that’s what teachers mostly do. The burn out rate is that high – it probably still is. Living on reserve was one of the highlights of my life. We learned so much about the people and their way of life; their problems; their wonderful generosity of spirit; their incredible sense of humour despite everything, that is simply a blank slate for too many Canadians.

    He also makes a great point about making sure that accountability is most importantly there for the people themelves and not just for the bean counters in Ottawa. His idea for an all party working committee with grassroots[#idlenomore] involvement, – or leaders outside of the AFN bearpit – is just right on…let’s get the politics out of this thing please!

    While i appreciate RNs last point it should be put in context of what life on our worst reserves is really like…remember this folks…http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/charlie-angus/attawapiskat-crisis-un_b_1161842.html before we all hang Spence in effigy. And keep n mind whatever you think about her hunger strike she has certainly caught everyone’s attention – would that have all happened without her?

    • Hi kmc2

      No need to be shy or intimidated. I, too, have learned the hard way that it is important to stand up for what you believe in, just like the Idle No More movement, so, too, have I joined a movement. The highlight of my day.

      I just signed the petition “Petition to Abolish the Indian Act of Canada ” on Change.org

      It’s important. Will you sign it too? Here’s the link:

      http://www.change.org/petitions/petition-to-abolish-the-indian-act-of-canada

      Thanks!

      Francien

      • The fact that you would sign this hardly shocks me.

        “BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that the Canadian Aboriginal People of all
        descriptions be invited to participate in Canadian society without
        distinction as to race or origin, as soon as is materially possible.”

        To do that you would need to repeal section 35 of the constitution…think you can get it done? And just who is Walter Bruno when he’s at home?

        • Thank you. It does not shock me that you are a supporter of Chief Spence. Each to their own.

          Yes, repeal section 35 of the constitution. Yes we can.

          And just who is Carolyn Bennett when she’s at home?

          And just who is Pam Palmater when she’s at home?

          But most of all, just who is Theresa Spence when she’s at home?

          • I think someone needs a nice long holiday, don’t you.

          • Yup, I think Pam could use a holiday.

            I understand Carolyn travels quite often on tax payer’s expense, and Chief Spence sleeps in hotel rooms, so that’s kinda like going on a holiday.

          • kcm2, you’re the one that needs a very long holiday or a long walk on a short pier.

  9. I think this is a pressure cooker situation for the chief. Her people are suffering and have been for years. It may be hard for us to believe or understand because the majority of Canadians live very good lives; maybe at the cost of these northern communities.. I don’t see why the development of the north wouldn’t be prosperous for the whole country..
    Fasting is often used in native culture as a way to connect with creator. She is praying and focusing on her duty; in hopes that there is a new and better way her people can live. That’s what a true chief does because she is getting results for people who have been left behind for too long.

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