The ridiculous overreaction by Prairie premiers and Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre to remarks from Justice Minister David Lametti deepens fissures that politicians should be trying to heal.
In the partisan crossfire, real issues involving the lives of real people get lost – in this case, the well-being of First Nations.
At a special meeting last week involving chiefs of the Assembly of First Nations and Mr. Lametti, two speakers referenced the 1930 agreement that transferred control over natural resources from the federal government to the governments of Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba.
In the early years of Confederation, Ottawa treated the Prairies as a de facto colony, breeding resentment. The 1930 agreement, which gave the Prairie provinces the same powers over resources that other provinces already enjoyed, was an effort at federal-provincial reconciliation.
But as First Nations leaders reminded Mr. Lametti, Indigenous peoples had no say in that agreement.
“Those resources were given to provinces” without Indigenous consent, Chief Donald Maracle protested.
In 2016, Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government endorsed the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which states that governments are required to make every effort to obtain the free, prior and informed consent of Indigenous peoples before implementing measures that affect them. In light of that declaration, chiefs wanted to know if the Justice Minister was prepared to revisit the 1930 decision.
Mr. Lametti, in response, said: “I obviously can’t pronounce on that right now, but I do commit to looking at that,” adding, “It won’t be uncontroversial, is the only thing I would say, with a bit of a smile.” Cue the outrage.
“The federal Justice Minister says he will look at taking control over natural resources away from the provinces,” tweeted Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe. “It’s an outrageous statement.”
“David Lametti threatened to overturn the constitution & take federal control over provincial resources,” Mr. Poilievre tweeted.
Provincial control over natural resources is now embedded in the Constitution and not subject to debate. The premiers know this. Mr. Poilievre knows this.
And Mr. Lametti affirmed it himself in a subsequent statement: “To be clear, at no point did I commit our government to reviewing areas of provincial jurisdiction, including that over natural resources.”
Or, as Mr. Trudeau put it Wednesday, the premiers were stoking “fears that have no grounding in truth.”
But as my colleague Kelly Cryderman has written, “in these fraught times – and especially days before an official Alberta election campaign call – every federal word on energy policy is significant.”
It is also true that, were things not so fraught, we would all agree that Mr. Lametti was simply offering polite but empty assurances that the government is listening to the concerns of First Nations, while having not the slightest intention of ever acting on those assurances – a deceit that Canadian politicians of all stripes have been practising for many a decade.
Many Indigenous people have long protested the transfer of control of resources from federal to provincial governments, including the 1930 transfer.
“From a First Nations perspective, it has always been very consistent,’ says Shalene Jobin, Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Governance at the University of Alberta. ”That isn’t new information. That concern has been raised for almost 90 years, now.”
But instead of listening to those concerns, the Saskatchewan and Alberta governments went ahead in recent months with legislation – the Alberta Sovereignty Act and the Saskatchewan First Act – reaffirming their exclusive control over non-renewable resources, again without Indigenous consultation.
We are left with three solitudes: federal, provincial and Indigenous. And instead of seeking reconciliation, a word very much in fashion these days, politicians manufacture crises for partisan gain.
I asked Prof. Jobin if she felt there was any hope of true reconciliation among the various levels of government and the various peoples of Canada. She responded with a Cree word: miyo-pimâtisiwin, which means “the good life.”
The purpose of reconciliation, she said, was for each to help the other in making a good life possible for all. (Students of Aristotle would agree.)
Among First Nations, “that generosity of spirit hasn’t gone away,” she told me. The same could not be said of certain federal and provincial politicians this week.