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Harper's Indian Meet-and-greet

AFN-Ministerial summit promises more of the same abusive relationship

by Dan David

Prime Minister Stephen Harper in an exchange with Assembly of First Nations national chief Shawn Atleo.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper in an exchange with Assembly of First Nations national chief Shawn Atleo.

“The most potent weapon of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.” - STEVE BIKO

A recently discovered note on my desk: “Answer questions from friends, re: What happened at Attawapiskat; whys and wherefores?”

Coincidentally, I’d been thinking about Shawn Atleo’s plan to “reset the relationship” between Indians and the Government of Canada when they meet on January 24. Atleo is head of the Assembly of First Nations (commonly referred to as Assorted Fruits and Nuts).  The questions sounded simple until one begins to try to make a complicated story understandable. Why don’t things ever change? Why do people in communities like Attawapiskat live like that? Why don’t they do something? Why doesn’t someone -- anyone -- do something?

Remember these questions when you get to the end of this post because they should sound eerily familiar in a completely different context.

The recent media frenzy on Attawapiskat is a superb example of a particular type of poverty porn -- Indigenous poverty porn. Normally, the mainstream media jumps all over stories like this that show dysfunction or crisis in Indigenous communities. It lets editorialists gnash their teeth and wring their hands, eventually coming to the conclusion that the situation -- the politics, the cost, the reality -- is just too complicated to do anything, ending in a ritualistic throwing up of hands. This is just the reaction that governments depend on. It means they can go back to ignoring Indigenous communities, when they’re not shoving them around to make way for oil, logging, mining or other corporate interests, or just because Ottawa can and does shove them around.

The mainstream media’s role in such stories is to be pacifier, applying soporific to Canadian audiences; supporter of status quo, comforter to the inflictor.  On this Attawapiskat story, the media’s been uncharacteristically attentive. It’s probably just a case of the mainstream media taking a bit more time to fall back into its traditional roles because the images have been so hard to ignore. Blame the relative youth of newsroom staff too. Due to rationalization and downsizing (i.e., cutbacks and layoffs) in most newsrooms, it’s a younger, less experienced crowd these days. Don’t worry. They’ll get the hang of it soon enough and begin to ignore Indians just as much as their elders.

Why such a dismal view of the mainstream media? I’ve seen this happen so many times that I compare it to “Groundhog Day,” a Bill Murray movie where the hero is doomed to wake up each morning to the same day unfolding almost unchanged, over and over again. Just like the mainstream media, Murray’s character keeps trying to change things until he finally realizes that it’s not things he must change. A shallow, self-serving schlub, he must change himself in some fundamental way -- to become human, that is -- before he can break the endless curse. Of course, it’s a typical Hollywood movie with obligatory happy ending, unlike real life where the media continues to repeat past missteps year after year into this not-so-new century.

Which brings me to this “relationship” that Atleo keeps harping about. What is it he wants to reset, as though there were a handy little button somewhere to push and -- voila!  First of all, he must recognize what he’s up against with both the Federal Government of Stephen Harper and the national news media. Here’s why.

Indians don’t matter. That’s it. That’s all.

We don’t register. We are not on the radar screens of anyone except perhaps CSIS, the RCMP and the Canadian military, which keeps a very nice quiet-spoken lady like Cindy Blackstock under surveillance because… well, maybe because she works for kids. Does CSIS need a reason to keep tabs on anyone? Does the RCMP need a reason to zap someone with 10,000 volts?  I rest my case.

But otherwise, Indians don’t matter.  Indians don’t vote, have the numbers to exercise any real voting power even if they did, don’t have money or economic clout, and don’t even have star power. Bono might be able to call up or drop by the PM’s office unexpectedly, but if Adam Beach or Tantoo Cardinal tried to do that they might have their phones tapped or find themselves on a black flight to Syria. In fact, Tantoo has to get arrested in Washington DC to get the Canadian media to notice that she’s using her star powers for good. Otherwise, nada, zip, bupkes.

Admit it. The average Canadian doesn’t wake up every morning (much to the astonishment of the average Indigenous person) wondering to herself, “How are those Indians doing today?” While the average Canadian may be representative of the average bureaucrat at AA (the Department formerly known as Prince) as well as the average journalist working in a newsroom, there is one BIG difference. The average Canadian isn’t paid to be interested in Indians because it’s part of their jobs, because it’s a perpetual black eye for human rights. At the very least, AA bureaucrats and not a few journalists should be concerned out of basic human decency.

What’s any of this got to do with Atleo over at Assorted Fruits and Nuts? Given the huge power imbalance between the Federal Government and Indians, Atleo’s walking into a meeting where fancy words and appeals for justice won’t cut the mustard. The Federal Government will do to Atleo what it’s doing right now to Attawapiskat. It’ll lay down some rules, issue some dictates, and impose the law in some gentle and not-so-subtle ways. If the Feds sense the AFN and Atleo aren’t following the script, they’ll remind those AFN folks who’s holding the chequebook.

Just as in Attawapiskat, Ottawa knows the mainstream media will soon go back to “looking up Lindsay Lohan’s knickers,” as UK comedian Ricky Gervais once put it. Without the average Canadian keeping up the pressure, pushing and prodding, asking and demanding, Ottawa can issue pious statements just like that National Apology of a few years ago. It will also be able to ignore those promises just as much afterward. Does anyone really take that Apology seriously anymore?

The other thing Atleo should understand, and make sure that others do as well, is that this so-called “relationship” is abusive, exploitive, demeaning, disgusting. He may use words like “colonialism,” but remember that Harper (aka PMSH) says Canada doesn’t have a history of colonialism. But then, PMSH probably doesn’t believe in global warming or that the oil sands are poisoning people downstream either. That doesn’t mean both aren’t true.  But he’s got the chequebook.

Atleo can expect PMSH and minions to push for side deals and perhaps even allow for minor giveaways.  This, too, is part of a common tactic at such national summits. It’s often revealed in the form of a “leaked cabinet document” or “leaked briefing note.” In whatever form, it will outline a strategy to “lower expectations” of those of the naturally swarthy persuasion. This strategy or some such will also be sold to a breathless mainstream media. Nothing gets editors salivating like a leaked “Cabinet doc.”

Via the news media, the strategy to “lower expectations” will also be re-sold almost without critical thought or analysis to the average Canadian -- the real target of the initiative. The tactic is aimed at the average Canadian because (remember?) Indians don’t matter. It doesn’t matter what Indians think about this strategy, although Atleo will be asked to respond by every news organization in Canada and maybe even a few beyond. But Indians are the intended target.  As Indians don’t have political, economic or voting power, they must rely on the average Canadian to apply pressure on Ottawa to deal honestly. This, unfortunately, is not likely given the real nature of this so-called “relationship” between Indians and the Government of Canada.

Does anyone know what this “relationship” is that Atleo keeps yapping about? Has anyone asked Atleo to describe what he means by that term? Why hasn’t the news media come up with an explanation so that the average Canadian can understand what’s at stake at this upcoming meeting? And -- puh-lease -- do not make the explanation so boring, so full of jargon and academic baffle-gab, that it sounds like the internal configuration of an Intel chip.

On the other hand, one hopes that Atleo won’t come out in full “fluffs and feathers” mode either; explaining in sombre tones to the background sound of drumming a relationship that resembles “two canoes,” representing two systems of governance, one Indigenous and other of the settler, existing in parallel with sharing and harmony and equality.  One can almost hear the butterflies flutter by with that one. Sorry to say, that’s a pipe dream.  I mean, literally so. Someone’s been smoking too much wacky tobacco. Let’s get real, Shawn.

The relationship that Atleo wants to “reset” is similar to that of another relationship common to too many households in Toronto, Vancouver, Montreal. It’s one way to make the Indian-Government relationship understandable to the average Canadian. This example is much more common than most people want to admit and one all too familiar with social workers. Spousal abuse. Here’s why the comparison fits.

Consider the power imbalance. Ottawa, like the dominant partner in an abusive relationship, controls the money, the spending, and claims everything obtained or bought and brought into the relationship. The actions of the weaker partner (Indians) are completely controlled by the abuser (the Federal Government). The weaker partner’s very survival often depends upon the abuser.  The abuser dispenses only enough for survival but never enough to encourage independence.  The abused survives but does not thrive.  Step out of line and out comes the backhand slap. With Indians who step out of line, it’s the third party manager or even an edict deposing one band council and inserting some better-behaved puppets.

Violence is sometimes but not always necessary. Fear of violence, fear of upsetting the dominant partner, is often enough. Fear and insecurity are used to keep the weaker partner stay within predictable patterns of behaviour. It’s a trap, really. This method even worked when much smaller colonial powers dominated much larger colonized Indigenous populations, whether in India, South Africa or the Philipines. So why wouldn’t a government today use similar methods to control much smaller Indigenous populations, such as we find in Canada? Isn’t that exactly how the Indian Act works?

Ask any social worker and they’ll usually advise three things in abusive situations like the one described. First, the abused partner must leave the abusive relationship. This means leaving the house, cutting all ties with the abuser, and finding a safe place. This requires an unflinching commitment to face facts and the reality of the situation. Good intentions and faint hopes of salvaging the relationship should have nothing to do with the decision to protect oneself from abuse.  Self-denial and self-doubt may be the greatest perils.  Disbelieving neighbours, another sort of denial that refuses to see the awful truth staring at them, is another form of denial.  It’s never easy to admit that silence is all that’s needed to ensure the abuse continues.

Of course, Indians can’t leave -- Canada is their home and native land. They can’t cut off all ties with the abuser, not when the Federal Government has them conditioned and dependent, even claiming to own the very land most Indians live on. Nor is there a safe place to find sanctuary; although some choose to move to the city, to blend in, to assimilate, to “pass” or hide in plain sight. As for the AFN and the chiefs it represents, they use terms such as “opting out of the Indian Act,” or “honouring treaty and Aboriginal rights,” or “asserting rights.” No one at Assorted Fruits and Nuts, you’ll notice, has ever used the words “freedom,” sought real independence, or asserted true Indigenous government. It is always understood, if never said out loud, that whatever the AFN seeks will be under the Indian Act. The AFN, you see, is an organization of Indian Act band councils.

So they’re trapped in an abusive relationship. There’s no declaration of independence, no bolt for freedom, no commitment to end their own destructive behaviours that allow the abuser to dominate and control. Instead, there’s a sense that the will to stand and demand respect is fading. That Atleo and the AFN will settle for a “reset” of the existing relationship, no matter how dysfunctional and destructive it is and has been.  The sense is that they’ll give in once more to fears and insecurities and return to their abusive relationship with Canada, perhaps with a side deal or two to sweeten things and make it go down easier. Maybe they’ll actually believe whispered promises by Ottawa delivered in the privacy of back rooms.  Maybe. 

One thing is certain though. The abuse will continue despite any promises by the abuser that things will change, that things will be better, and that the abuser has really, really learned this time.





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