- Category: news
- Created: Tuesday, 17 September 2013 03:11
- Published: Tuesday, 17 September 2013 03:11
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By Michael Harris
The Harper government’s push for pipeline love from British Columbia native leaders looks more a like a shove from a nightclub doorman to show who’s in charge.
With just three months left before the Joint Review Panel (JRP) passes judgement on Enbridge’s proposed Northern Gateway pipeline, a swarm of Tory heavyweights — including the prime minister — has descended on B.C.
Their ostensible purpose is to win hearts and minds. That’s a largely empty enterprise, since the government will be going ahead with the controversial development no matter whose rivers it has to cross with China-bound bitumen, or how many sportsmen lie down in front of the bulldozers. It’s like that U-2 song — With or Without You — even if that means simply declaring Northern Gateway to be ‘in the national interest’, the nuclear option in the PM’s arsenal.
Everyone has an opinion on whether these developments are good or bad; it depends on how one scores economic benefits against environmental hazards. But let no one be deceived. Dear Leader’s entourage has not shown up one minute to midnight in British Columbia to woo First Nation peoples, negotiate, or give fair value for what Ottawa wants.
That approach would violate the Harper government’s preferred tactic when dealing with opponents: blunt declarations of how it’s going to be, followed by a rabbit punch or two. Think of Jim Flaherty’s negotiating technique with provincial health ministers in Victoria. Not a lot of back-and-forth, right?
If the prime minister had really wanted to talk to native leaders, he wouldn’t have sent Enbridge executives to assume Ottawa’s constitutional role of consulting about pipelines — a company’s whose reputation for stewardship of the environment is well known.
Nor would Stephen Harper have tried a second time to delegate his responsibilities to Vancouver lawyer Doug Eyford, setting him the impossible task of trying again after his corporate envoys failed to buy off the chiefs with a boatload of beads and baloney.
Here’s the skinny. If the PM really wanted to negotiate, he would have invested his own political capital. He would have held a face-to-face meeting with native leaders. As the Syria crisis has shown, proxies are for pussies: Real leaders take off their shirts and wade in, right Vlad?
Since Stephen Harper has never travelled to B.C. to meet chiefs since his election in 2006, sending his men out to do it now smacks of calculating tokenism. It also betrays a certain grandiosity about the PM’s self-image. After all, he is a prime minister who only answers questions from leaders in Parliament, not those peons known as MPs. So why would he talk to the chiefs?
Even the way Ottawa approached the B.C. chiefs betrays the Harper government’s emotional deficit on this file. Ceremony and respect mean a great deal in aboriginal culture. Yet they were summoned like busboys to a September 23 meeting without a peep about what was on Ottawa’s mind. If this was supposed to be a political demonstration of shock and awe, it won’t work.
Would the PM attend a summit where there was no indication of what was going to be discussed and no way to be properly briefed? Would Stephen Harper summon the Chinese leadership, out of the blue, to talk oilsands without an agenda? Bottom line? Harper clearly doesn’t see Canada’s aboriginals as a third level of government, and the words “First Nations” — as Preston Manning observed — don’t mean much to him. Words generally don’t.
Interesting that B.C. Premier Christy Clark also contacted the B.C. chiefs for a face-to-face meeting about pipelines. Should anyone be surprised if the chiefs, who have been ignored by both parties for a long time, might think that the politicians merely have ironed out their differences — leaving the First Nations as the only obstacle in the path of Northern Gateway? No wonder they’re skeptical. No one wants to be mollified when what they’re really after is to be included.
So why are Stephen Harper, a bevy of robotic cabinet ministers and the representatives of seven federal departments in British Columbia looking like a hunting pack of jackals that confuses toothiness with a charm offensive? Here’s what Grand Chief Stewart Phillip of the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs told Chris Hall of the CBC:
“I have a sinking feeling that perhaps they’re covering their backsides in terms of a consultation record.”
In other words, self-interest. After years of neglect, it has suddenly dawned on the PM that native reservations about Northern Gateway are headed to court. And since Ottawa has a constitutional obligation to consult, accommodate and compensate First Nations for developments that touch their lands, Harper is belatedly touching all the bases before the legal briefs are filed.
The prime minister may hope that he can pass off such eleventh-hour brinkmanship as the honest discharge of the federal government’s duty to consult. And he might even persuade the Supreme Court, though that is doubtful. But he will never be able to convince Canada’s Aboriginal Peoples that he sees them as anything but vexatious adversaries.
That’s because the Harper government’s account is badly overdrawn on a range of issues where the rubber hits the road for First Nations.
Harper is the prime minister who killed the Kelowna Accord, replacing Paul Martin’s commitment to change things with a commitment to something less than the status quo.
It was the Harper government that gutted environmental protections in a spate of anti-democratic omnibus legislation, forcing natives to protect the land on their own.
The Harper promise of a new relationship between First Nations and Ottawa has fizzled. After a florid apology with all the trappings of state, the PM merely replaced the mistakes of the past with the mistakes of the present, including a sneaky change to band funding agreements that critics believe would allow government policy to trump native treaty rights.
During the Idle No More protests in Ottawa, PM Harper was as aloof as Louis the 14th, refusing to meet certain native leaders who were tired of the federal runaround on land claims and treaty rights. They learned that Stephen Harper doesn’t make time for nobodies.
The government attempted to humiliate Chief Theresa Spence during her protest by leaking an audit about her lack of managerial skills on her home reserve. That tactic was put in perspective when the Treasury Board later lost $3.2 billion in taxpayers money, but said that was okay because no one was alleging any misspending.
After setting up the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to get to the bottom of the nightmarish residential schools system, the Harper government refused to hand over documents requested by the commission, forcing a lawsuit.
When hundreds of native kids walked from Hudson Bay to Ottawa in the dead of winter, they were greeted by Opposition Leader Thomas Mulcair, who sat shivering on the podium for hours to later deliver a one-minute speech.
The prime minister decided that day to go to Toronto to greet a pair of rented Chinese panda bears who were arriving at Pearson International Airport.
First Nations people are still waiting for the day when they are taken as seriously as tarsands and fuzzy animals.
When they are, they’ll have something to teach this PM about things that you don’t put into vending machines or the old bank account.
Michael Harris is a writer, journalist, and documentary filmmaker. He was awarded a Doctor of Laws for his “unceasing pursuit of justice for the less fortunate among us.” His eight books include Justice Denied, Unholy Orders, Rare ambition, Lament for an Ocean, and Con Game. His work has sparked four commissions of inquiry, and three of his books have been made into movies. He is currently working on a book about the Harper majority government to be published in the autumn of 2014 by Penguin Canada.