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Jeffrey Simpson

Jeffrey Simpson

JEFFREY SIMPSON

You can’t just denounce Ottawa Add to ...

Ovide Mercredi has passed from the national political scene. For most of the 1990s, he was a major figure as national chief of the Assembly of First Nations.

What must Mr. Mercredi be thinking now, watching one of his successors, Shawn Atleo, leave his post under duress, accused by adversaries as having sold out to Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government?

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Like Mr. Atleo, Mr. Mercredi negotiated as an equal partner at the table with the prime minister of the day, Brian Mulroney, and the premiers. The negotiations resulted in important gains for aboriginal self-government contained in the 1992 Charlottetown accord.

Mr. Mercredi threw himself into the battle for approval of the Charlottetown deal, campaigning hard in the national referendum for the Yes side.

He failed. Charlottetown was defeated, including among aboriginal voters. The national chief had tried to lead, but his people would not follow.

Such were the generic suspicions of the “white man’s government” that the accord failed among the majority of aboriginals who voted. Aboriginal critics said the deal was being rushed; the “gains” were not enough; the guarantees were too weak; native self-government was not adequately defined. More consultation was needed.

Sound familiar? These are among the arguments advanced by critics of Mr. Atleo, who negotiated the First Nations Control of First Nations Education Act. He settled for too little, they claimed. He sold out.

Like Mr. Mercredi before him, Mr. Atleo did nothing of the kind. What he got was at best a good deal, and at worst a defensible one. What Mr. Atleo could not overcome was the inherent dysfunction of the AFN, which purports to represent hundreds of chiefs and “nations.”

Michael Mendelson of the Caledon Institute of Social Policy has just written a calm, careful and clear review of the failed act, what preceded it, and why, on balance, it could have provided the foundation for historic changes in the structure, control and funding of aboriginal education. He does not take sides between the government and aboriginal negotiators, but his account puts paid to the one-sided rhetoric that Mr. Atleo sold out.

He explains how far the Harper government went to accommodate aboriginal demands. The notion that the Harper government was obdurate and unreasonable, widely put about by the dissident chiefs, is demolished in Mr. Mendelson’s careful reconstruction.

“He is a tough negotiator,” Mr. Mendelson wrote of Mr. Atleo. “He obtained substantial – some might say path-breaking – concessions from government. And the government showed itself willing to accommodate many First Nations requirements. These were negotiations in good faith on both sides.”

This fair narrative was obliterated in the post-failure media coverage that concentrated on the verbal denunciations and street theatre of the dissident chiefs. Nobody rose to defend what had been negotiated. Mr. Atleo left under verbal assault, even disgrace.

Mr. Mendelson doesn’t say so, but his paper raises the question, also relevant in Mr. Mercredi’s time: What does it take to get a Yes when negotiating with an umbrella aboriginal organization? Mr. Atleo’s fiery critics among the chiefs insisted that Ottawa had to deal with each aboriginal group on a “nation to nation” basis, instead of through the AFN.

It’s an absurd demand, since there are more than 550 such groups. Ratcheting up demands to the patently unreasonable, then blaming whichever government is in power for failing to accede to these demands, is part and parcel of the rhetoric of some aboriginal leaders and their supporters in the universities.

Mr. Mendelson plausibly argues that the government could have better handled the issue of native education financing. The gap between what Ottawa offered financially and what it would take to eliminate the difference between on-reserve and provincial school funding is not that large. Ottawa could have done better.

These and other sticking points could have been further negotiated, or changed in Parliament, except that the dissident chiefs wanted more, much more: They forced out Mr. Atleo, broke up the dysfunctional AFN, denounced the government and are now further than ever from their avowed intention: First Nations control of education.

They could not give even a provisional Yes, because to have done so would have offended the political culture of opposition they have created and propagated.

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