Five years ago, Stephen Harper stood in the House of Commons and issued the historic apology for the legacy of government and church-run residential schools. At that time, many Aboriginal people held hope that this marked the beginning of a new and empowering chapter in relations between the government and Aboriginals. Now the government has slashed funding to 43 representative Aboriginal organizations. The new chapter clearly needs severe editing.
Assembly of First Nations national chief Shawn Atleo expressed surprise at the severity of the cuts. His group saw funding axed by 30 per cent. For me, it was no surprise at all. When the Tories announced last September that cuts were coming, and bandied about a 10 per cent number, I expected a much harsher outcome, especially to the national Aboriginal organizations.
Along with the AFN, chops were made to the funding of the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples, the Métis National Council and the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami. To me they billboarded this move back when the government changed the name of Indian Affairs to Aboriginal Affairs; meaning everyone brown would be under the same umbrella. Last week’s announcement only confirmed my suspicion.
Now, there are those who will say that this is all good. They will say that native people need to be swept under the same collective rug as everyone else in this country. They will say that Canada spends too much on them already. They will say a lot. But the truth is, that if a government can cut the knees out of organizations geared to the upward advancement of people then it’s going to be someone else’s turn next.
The Harper government doesn’t care that thousands of underprivileged Canadian kids exist on 22 per cent less child care funding than their neighbours. They don’t care that hundreds of thousands of Canadians can’t drink safe water. They don’t care that whole Canadian communities exist in the dreary world of chronic unemployment and welfare.
These aren’t just Aboriginal people. These are Canadians. These are your neighbours. Clearly, the government has little concern for their continued wellbeing and that should worry everyone. Sometime, somewhere another group of Canadians is going to feel the brunt of Mr. Harper’s dedication to balancing the budget and eliminating the deficit at all costs; human, planetary and otherwise. Someday, everyone is going to get to feel how it feels to be an Indian in this country.
That’s the implication in this round of cuts. Anyone who can stand in the House of Commons and issue an apology for grievous harm to a people only to continue a campaign of abject disregard for them will not consider the rights and needs of anyone. Anyone. So all of those who trumpet these cuts as timely or necessary need to worry for their own.
An apology is only as good as the change in behaviour that follows it. Nothing in the five years since that false statement in the House has changed. Only the collective voice of Idle No More kept the sorry state of Aboriginal affairs and issues in the public eye. With national political organizations further hamstrung by an uncaring government, and no talks scheduled in the foreseeable future, Canada can count on another, more strident round of protests.
Say what you will, but protest when leadership fails is a viable avenue for the clarification and articulation of issues. What needs to be said, and the women and youth behind Idle No More are the perfect vehicle, is that the dishonour of one is the dishonour of all. Aboriginal issues are now Canadian issues, because when government can act with such callous disregard for lives and futures we are all Indians now.
Richard Wagamese’s most recent book is the novel Indian Horse.