Fixing the native economy

Does Canada’s oldest struggle have a new hope in Chuck Strahl?

Fixing the native economyIt was a slogan that epitomized a party that altered Canadian politics: “So you don’t trust politicians. Neither do we.” Those words—the first sentence in bold black font, the second in green—blared from the first page of a 1994 pamphlet summarizing Reform party policy. Below were two paragraphs of explanation, then one final credo: “Let’s change the system.”

This past June, nearly 16 years after he was first elected among an inaugural class of 52 Reform MPs, three years after he became a minister of the Crown, and a year after he was assigned perhaps the heaviest portfolio in cabinet, Indian Affairs Minister Chuck Strahl stood before an audience of Aboriginal and business leaders at the Public Policy Forum in Ottawa and stirred the echoes. “I must say I’ve been a member of Parliament for 16 years almost and if simply making promises to Aboriginal people was the way to prosperity, they would be the most prosperous people in the world,” he said. “I’m not going to pretend that government, that any governments, Aboriginal or the federal government, public governments, have all the answers. I know as you do that we don’t have the market cornered when it comes to good ideas. In fact, that old phrase, ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help,’ that strikes terror into people’s hearts, I realize.”

There was much more of this. He talked of “getting a better bang for our buck” and “return on investment.” “We realize,” he said, “we can’t tackle each and every problem that requires attention by simply throwing money at it, throwing it around like pixie dust hoping that some of it will miraculously cause something new to happen or something magical to happen.”

These were not, perhaps, the sorts of things one is supposed to say when talking about what is generally regarded as a humanitarian crisis. But here, again, Strahl wants to change the system. “It’s meant to point in a new direction,” Strahl says now, seated in his Parliament Hill office. “There’s not much doubt about it.”

His speech that day previewed what Strahl unveiled shortly thereafter—a “federal framework for Aboriginal economic development.” It is a plan that promises government collaboration, partnership with the private sector, skills development and easier access to capital. “One of the problems has been, in the past, is that there’s one place to go for your solution to your problem,” he says. “There’s only one thing to do, that’s get on the blower and dial 1-800-FEDS.”

He talks of multilateral agreements, private investment, and making Aboriginals full members of the national economy. When a community asks for funding, he says, he wants to hear first about what other partners have agreed to invest—something, he maintains, he demands of any applicant in his B.C. riding of Chilliwack-Fraser Canyon. The Aboriginal population, he says, is eager to be involved, and corporations are equally ready to do business.

Strahl’s optimism was seconded earlier this summer by economists at TD Bank. With lengthy caveats about the challenges faced and the mess of obstacles that must be overcome, economists Derek Burleton and Don Drummond reported that “the winds of change may have started to blow in the right direction.” These winds, they wrote, include Supreme Court decisions demanding Aboriginal input into natural resource development on their land, burgeoning Aboriginal entrepreneurship, recognition within the private sector that the Aboriginal population presents untapped opportunity ahead of a looming labour shortage, and greater government focus on the need to improve education standards. “We’re not saying that we’ve seen enormous change already,” Burleton says, “but a lot of the pieces have been falling into place and I think if there’s been a time for transformative change, now is probably the best opportunity of achieving that.”

The caveats, of course, are many and seem to multiply each week. Reserves in Manitoba have struggled this summer to deal with the H1N1 virus. A survey released last month by Statistics Canada showed that Aboriginal adults made up 22 per cent of Canada’s prison inmates, despite counting for only three per cent of the general population. A border crossing near Cornwall, Ont., was recently blocked in a dispute with Akwesasne Mohawks. A year ago, the House of Commons paused to apologize for the scourge of residential schools, but the truth and reconciliation committee established to sort through that dark history soon fell apart (it has since been restarted). This spring, the House went silent again as Liberal MP Todd Russell rose, read the names of five of a reported 520 Aboriginal women who have disappeared or been murdered since 1970, and asked for a full inquiry.

“The road to hell,” says Russell, a Métis from Labrador, “is paved with good intentions.” He is circumspect to say the least, doubtful of the government’s genuine interest in working with the Aboriginal population and hesitant to declare an answer found. “Economic development within itself can be a means to enhancing the life conditions of Aboriginal peoples, but it’s very hard to concentrate on entrepreneurial activities when, as leaders, many leaders in a lot of Aboriginal activities are dealing with overcrowding or water and sewer [problems] . . . when you’re dealing with education that is not on a par with the rest of Canadian society, when you’re dealing with things like H1N1,” he says.

Russell notes the government’s unique constitutional responsibilities to First Nations and worries too that the government will ultimately be picking “winners and losers”—rewarding some communities, but leaving others only further behind.

Grand Chief Edward John of Tl’azt’en Nation in British Columbia sees initiative in Aboriginal communities, and agrees with the need to find solutions beyond the federal government. But he says disputes over land remain in the way. “The proof is in the pudding, they say. And we have to see the evidence of that pudding,” he says. “It’s not that we want more government handouts. If we had the land and resources and were able to develop those, we’d be in a far better place.”

The relationship between Aboriginals and this government has been strained—notably by the scrapping of Paul Martin’s Kelowna accord and Canada’s refusal to sign the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People—and good-faith collaboration would seem to be high on the list of demands. But Strahl may find some agreement with Shawn Atleo, the newly elected national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, whose campaign platform describes “education, entrepreneurship and work” as “the new whale.” And on general philosophy, at least, there may be some wider agreement, even optimism. “It’s not like we’re sitting back and talking about woe be me. We’ve actually taken the bull by the horns and said, ‘Come hell or high water, we’re going to make a difference in our communities,’ ” John says. “We’re going to bring in governments, we’re going to bring in industry, we’re going to bring in anyone who can work with us to improve the situation for our peoples.”

If there is a minister in Stephen Harper’s cabinet capable of selling something new on the subject of Canada’s oldest struggle, it may be Strahl. Bob Rae has deemed him one of the best performers in the House of Commons. Equal parts folksy and stern, his metaphors are mostly food-based—“soup to nuts,” “peaches and cream.” He quotes Dr. Phil (“how’s that working for you?”). Even when talking about reopening the Indian Act, the contentious legislation of 1876 that has defined Aboriginal affairs ever since and is once again open for discussion, he pines for reasonableness. “I think that, while there’s a broad consensus that people don’t like it, both within our party and within the Aboriginal community,” he says, “what we’re doing is taking pragmatic steps to address outstanding issues instead of the big, grand reorganization plan.”

He speaks in terms of old and new, of what hasn’t worked up to now and what could work from here on. But much of his answer to the ancient question of how to mend relations between Aboriginals and the rest of the country and improve the lot of all comes back to the fact that he doesn’t have the answer. That where no politician has yet solved all the problems, no politician will. At least on his or her own. “The old conversation was, is there a program in the federal government that will fix this for me?” he says. “The new conversation is, what are the other partners that we can engage on this? And that’s a much better conversation to have than the old one. The old one was, there’s not enough money in the system, nor enough wisdom in the system, at the federal level, to make enough good decisions to help you out. But there is if we engage enough partners.”