Bill 88 implications require focus from Indigenous leaders

Some time prior to the 2015 election I attended a public information forum in Saskatoon asking Indigenous peoples whether they should vote federally, provincially or in municipal contests. While I’m fairly certain that hard-core rightist party supporters would have a three-day hangover over that answer being negative, the question does have some validity in that Treaty negotiators, sitting at that table as leaders of “nations within a nation”, should be focusing upon the benefits to be gleaned by their own people through successful negotiation, as opposed to interfering in the cultural practises of others.

When I first heard this premise being presented by a very young Poundmaker Councillor, I was seriously opposed to this hands-off approach – for two reasons. First, it was national Grand Chief Perry Bellegarde who shortly after the Harper government dropped the election writ, TOLD Indigenous voters to NOT vote for a Conservative candidate, as Harper’s recently passed “Fair” Elections Act had the potential to disenfranchise tens of thousands living on reserve lands – a point I was there to argue myself.

In reality the Act had the potential to disenfranchise more than a million Canadians. Originally drafted by now temporary CPC Leader Pierre Poilievre, even its later “toned down” version specifically DEMANDED that if challenged as to your eligibility to vote in a riding, your identity “proof” HAD to show the PHYSICAL location where you resided. To rural voters who think that’s “fair”, pull out your driver’s license and check whether it lists your land description (township, block and lot) in the identity section or merely your mailing address; IF it contains only the latter, you were theoretically ineligible to vote – as were other Conservative “undesirables” – the Indigenous who don’t believe in owning the land, the homeless, the transient, the person of “wrong colour” NOT wearing a Riders jacket, naturalized Canadians from the Middle East and the Asian subcontinent, and women “sporting” facial tattoos.

I’ve included this story about voting rights in 2015 because even hard right Conservative voters understand that voting IS actually a Canadian’s citizen’s “right” once they reach the age of 18, and as such is enshrined in our Constitution and Bill of Rights. My premise for tying voting rights with concerns as to the contents of Bill 88 is that it has now created a “keep your bloody Ottawa hands off the affairs that the Constitution has assigned to our province” dangerous meanness between the two levels of government.

It is actually the provincial government that doesn’t seem to understand the duties it’s been assigned, doesn’t perform them for certain “classes” of Canadian citizens (i.e.: Indigenous peoples), and stupidly ignores the premise that their inability to properly manage such duties could have serious fiscally damaging consequences for Saskatchewanians by violating the rights of others NOT living in this province, or Canada itself. Such liability costs would inevitably be borne by taxpayers (including the Indigenous ones) – just because the Sask Party doesn’t “like” Justin Trudeau.

I’d cry in sympathy with their Gen X “sensitivities”, but to be honest, the Moe government isn’t worth the effort to generate tears of rage.

The “standard” duties constitutionally assigned to provinces include health, education, legal and social services, as well as infrastructure. So why are so many roads either leading into or passing reserves either unpaved or in serious need of repair? How did the Wall government’s CANCELLING of monies allocated to build a 24/7/365 roadway into Wollaston Lake NOT adversely affect that community’s efforts to economically develop a fish processing plant that could then see its excellent finished product shipped to its overseas markets? Why wasn’t the bridge just west of La Loche that would have allowed traffic to have a shorter route to the Oil Patch built when it would have only cost $17 million, as opposed to its current $50 million price tag – AND would have provided a transportation route to be used by central Canadian and U.S. manufacturing interests transporting goods to that area with an approximate 900 km “short-cut” that would have almost halved transportation costs – not to mention being a road carrying twice the traffic now passing over Regina’s $2 billion Jean Drapeau Bypass? And what about Prince Albert’s TWO bridges – where even currently the one decrepit version already carries three times the traffic of the “Made in France” bypass that only Regina developers thought was a great idea?

The reduction in welfare costs and policing activities would easily cover the costs of such construction. Don’t stop there. Bands need water treatment facilities built? Have contractors make arrangement to employ community members and build them – it’s the province’s DUTY under our Constitution. So what if Indigenous Affairs is a federally charged responsibility? Would a landlord continue to demand a building manager keep on picking up a tenant’s garbage or just evict the polluter? Send the feds the bill; it was them that assigned the province these janitorial tasks in the first place. Stop whining about Justin. Harper, Mulroney, Diefenbaker and Bennett were also lousy property “managers”.

Ah, but you see, that’s not how the system works, is it? I hear this story all the time: once a Chief is elected, he/she is seldom ever seen in the community. Why’s that? Why, they’re participating in important treaty negotiations where they’re now treated as leaders of “nations within a nation”. The irony here is that this work, were it to attain “breakthrough” in the form of a negotiated settlement, these Chiefs are now so blinded by the flashing of media cameras that they don’t notice that just after the PM has affixed his signature to the document, one of his “assistants” takes it from the desk and delivers it to a government lawyer, whereupon the next time it will be seen is by a Supreme Court justice screening its contents for legal challenges by the same government that just concluded these negotiations.

People are tired of reading about court cases where the victim or the accused (sometimes both) are Indigenous. I want Indigenous leaders to start using their lawyers to bring forward litigation issues of a more “meaningful” consequence, such as challenging the reworking of Section 92, the Natural Resources Transfer Act of 1930, or reopening the overturning of the original Benoit v Canada case.

That Bill 88 is unconstitutional is a “given”, with the areas of its focus potentially posing serious ecological, climatic and economic damage for northern communities and continuing strained relations on the international level of world commerce. We have already been overburdened by stories of the province refusing to sell Crown lands to First Nations seeking economic relief, even as speculators contemplate the building very private, well-fenced vacation homes on the lakes named for our war dead.

Our north is already blighted by clear cutting practices. Add to this a list of new resource harvesting corporations starting mining operations under climate and environmental protection legislation that the province wants to “dumb down”, and the voters who put these Chiefs into office might want to ask them, “WHY couldn’t you stay at home for a while, if only to protect the things that really matter to our communities?”

These same Chiefs might also want to ask themselves why the Athabasca riding, now held by Jim Lemaigre of the Sask Party, supported a candidate whose sole mission was to “sell” Bill 88. The NDP candidate, Georgina Jolibois, is literally considered to be a hero in the rest of Canada’s Indigenous communities for her introducing a private member’s bill to set aside a national holiday to address the need for a “truth of history and need for reconciliation” day for Canadians – and for which the Liberal Party courteously asked for permission to place on the order table as the business of government.

Was that because the Chiefs thought that Indigenous peoples voting in provincial affairs had no consequence in their lives, or was it more likely because Jolibois’ accomplishment could never be challenged in the Supreme Court? My bet is on the latter…