Pamela Palmater is a Mi’kmaw from Eel River Bar First Nation in New Brunswick. She is a lawyer, author, and advocate for First Nations and currently holds the position of Associate Professor and Chair in Indigenous Governance at Ryerson University.
In ten short years, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper has set the relationship with First Nations back a hundred years. While all past governments have had a hand in the colonization and oppression of First Nations, the Harper government stands out as one of the most racist and aggressive governments that First Nations have had to work with in many generations. His government’s pattern of victim-blaming, racist stereotyping, and using misinformation to vilify First Nations leaders in the media has led even the most reserved voices at the United Nations to conclude that Harper’s actions have put “social peace” at risk. It should be no surprise, then, that Idle No More, representing the largest, most coordinated social protest movement in Canada, arose during Harper’s regime.
But Harper’s battle with First Nations started long before Idle No More burst into the streets. In 2008, the very first item on the agenda of the newly elected Harper government was to trash the Kelowna Accord and the five billion dollar budget targeted to address the socio-economic gap between First Nations and other Canadians. That same year, shortly after issuing an apology for the residential schools and all the harm caused by taking away the languages and cultures of Indigenous peoples, Harper’s government cut funding for Indigenous languages. The following year, after apparently forgetting the more than 7,500 children who died in residential schools, Harper declared to the world that Canada has “no history of colonialism.”
Today, First Nations in Canada live 7 to 20 years less than the average Canadian, while over half of First Nations children live in poverty. Indigenous children make up less than 4% of the population but nearly 50% of all children in foster care nationally. In Manitoba, Indigenous children make up 90% of all children in care. The Harper government, however, has refused to take action to tackle these problems. Indeed, the government’s inaction has exacerbated them.
According to the Auditor General, the inequitable funding of First Nations has resulted in a disproportionate number of First Nations children in foster care, the gap in education, and the current First Nations housing crisis. In 2011, the Auditor General raised the alarm on Canada’s failure to implement the recommendations deemed by previous reports as those “most important to the lives and well-being of First Nations.” For over a decade, the Office of the Correctional Investigator (OCI) has called the over-representation of Indigenous peoples in prisons a crisis that stems directly from Canada’s discriminatory laws and policies. The crisis, OCI argues, is getting worse as the Harper government continues to ignore its recommendations. For the Harper government, however, these reports seem to be neither an embarrassment nor a crisis requiring corrective action.
Harper isn’t simply neglectful - his government knowingly allows conditions that lead to the preventable deaths of First Nations to continue unmitigated. For Harper’s majority, this is, in fact, the plan – to make conditions so unbearable on reserves that First Nations are forced to leave their communities and give up their lands for resource extraction. In the 2014 federal budget, Harper promised to “ensure” the extraction of natural resources, which ties in to his speech from the throne, in which he promised to “protect” these resources by beefing up the protective infrastructure around them – including roads and bridges. This is why you see billions invested in “energy infrastructure development” and law enforcement. This is also why Bill C-51, the government's new anti-terrorism act, was passed – to stop threats to national security – including threats to infrastructure and the economy. Given that the Harper government has already labeled First Nations leaders as “rogues” and “threats to national security,” it won’t be long before more Indigenous peoples defending their lands end up in terrorist holding cells.
Harper has shown that his government will spare no expense to litigate against First Nation rights and vilify First Nation leaders in the media if they talk about the housing, education or water crises. All civil actions by First Nations to protect lands and waters from clear-cutting, mining, hydro-fracking or pipelines have been met with heavy RCMP intervention. Harper’s continued failure to take action on the social crises has resulted in worsening socio-economic conditions, particularly in regards to First Nations education and employment. But we are not just talking about jobs – Harper’s racism is killing our people.
In 2010, shortly after the Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC) captured the world’s attention in reporting that at least 600 Indigenous women and girls had been murdered or gone missing, Harper’s Conservatives cut the organization’s funding. In 2012, the Pickton Inquiry found that the RCMP were not doing their jobs to protect Indigenous women. Even worse, a Human Rights Watch report documented cases of RCMP officers raping and assaulting Indigenous girls. Harper never budged. Even when the RCMP investigated the issue and found the number of murdered and missing to be double what NWAC found, the calls for a national inquiry to address this sociological phenomenon were denied by Harper. In his words: “We should not view this as a sociological phenomenon. We should view it as crime.” Later, he stated that a national inquiry “isn’t really high on our radar, to be honest.” In other words, the frequent, yet preventable deaths of Indigenous women and girls, isn’t a cause for concern.
Harper’s abusive policies towards First Nations have even gained notoriety internationally. In 2014, the United Nations called Canada’s failure to address the “abysmal poverty” in First Nations a crisis, in a report that highlights the marginalization of First Nations in Canada, their low socio-economic indicators, the crisis of children in foster care, murdered and missing Indigenous women, abusive behavior by police against Indigenous women (including sexual assault), and the lack of consultation with First Nations on legislation. These concerns echo a report from the same year by the Bertelsmann Foundation, which found that Canada’s record on governance has decreased under Harper’s majority government, and particularly in relation to First Nations.
Over the past decade, Harper has consistently failed to consult with First Nations regarding resource extraction, which is not only illegal and unconstitutional, but has fuelled the largest social movement Canada has ever seen: Idle No More. Even prominent scientists and religious leaders can see the importance of respecting Indigenous cultures and the rights to our lands and resources. According to David Suzuki: “Aboriginal peoples, not environmentalists, are our best bet for protecting the planet” because of our Indigenous knowledge systems that protect and sustain the environment. Pope Francis has said that Indigenous peoples and our land rights are the solution to climate change because “[f]or them, land is not a commodity, it is a gift from God.” He further stated: “When they remain on their land, they themselves care for it best.”
Harper has waged a ten year war on First Nations and we have suffered severe casualties. Why does this matter to Canadians? Because First Nations are Canada’s last best hope at protecting the lands, waters, plants and animals for our collective future generations. As Harper amends environmental legislation to be virtually useless, and passes legislation making it an act of terror to protect the environment, the constitutionally-protected Aboriginal and treaty rights of First Nations have become the last remaining legal safeguard against unfettered resource extraction and the total destruction of our lands and waters.
It’s time for us to return Canada to the original treaty vision of mutual respect, benefit, and protection.