Sunday, August 22, 2010

Bringing in the chiefs

Marci McDonald’s recent book on the relationship between the Religious Right and the Harper government,
The Armageddon Factor, may have been unclear on finer points of theology, and it contained a small handful of solecisms over which the Usual Suspects snorted and slobbered. But in general it was a competent dissection of the influence that certain elements of the "faith community" would like to have on governance, and a government (Stephen Harper, that is) that has provided them with unprecedented space—while falling far short of attempting to turn Canada into the Republic of Gilead.

But at least one significant omission should be rectified: the attempts of the government to work with reactionary religious elements amongst the First Nations.

Relations between the Harper administration and First Nations have been fraught almost from the beginning. From attempting to foist Maurice "Starlight Tours" Vellacott upon the Aboriginal Affairs Committee, to its shameful rejection of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples ; from its refusal for years to build a children’s school in Attawapiskat to its appointment of Chuck Strahl as Minister of Indian and Northern Affairs, whose visceral contempt for the First Nations is a matter of public record. (Chuck has now moved on to become Minister of Transport.)

As for Harper’s much-vaunted “apology” to residential school survivors, he followed that bit of self-serving puffery with deep slashes in funding to aboriginal groups:

But with apology and self-congratulations still echoing, his government cut off funding in its March 2010, budget to the very aboriginal groups set up to administer to survivors. The Ottawa-based Aboriginal Healing Centre loses its last federal money — and with it, some 147 national centres and projects — in 2012.

This past June, however, I watched that same Chuck Strahl receive high honours, in person, from a gathering of First Nations people in Ottawa (actually, outnumbered in the audience by those of the European persuasion). But this was no ordinary meeting. Strategically organized to take place a week before the hapless, hobbled Truth and Reconciliation Commission was due to hold its first hearings in Winnipeg, the National Forgiven Summit, organized by Canada’s Aboriginal Religious Right, gathered to accept Harper’s empty apology.

The master of ceremonies was one Kenny Blacksmith, a former Deputy Grand Chief of the Cree nation, already rewarded earlier this year for his devotion to the Conservative cause by being appointed to the little-known Canadian Race Relations Foundation.

Kenny is a protégé of the noted young Christian Dominionist Faytene Kryskow, who featured heavily in MacDonald’s book. Indeed, she helped him set up his more recent Facebook page.

He is devout and pentacostal—not that there’s anything wrong with that. But the subversive wedding of his beliefs with the aims of our government (the Ottawa meeting featured a video clip from Harper on a big screen, and various Conservative notables were in the VIP section) is something else again, particularly given the harm that this government has visited upon First Nations people.

Now, what is wrong with this picture? A group claiming to speak for Aboriginal people, making close links with a government that, despite a so-called apology for the shameful legacy of residential schools, has thwarted them at every turn? A government that even balked at building a school for Indian kids, while providing major funding for a Christian private college, and a Christian youth center in Vic Toews’ NDP MP Pat Martin's riding, over his objections, after the vigorous intervention of Vic Toews?

The only thing the government and Blacksmith have in common, it seems, is Jesus. But one wonders whether the Latter would approve of these goings-on. Does Blacksmith work for his people, or for the government?

Jesus said, "A person cannot mount two horses or bend two bows. And a slave cannot serve two masters, otherwise that slave will honor the one and offend the other." (Thom 47:1-2)

And is he building unity or dividing his people?

"These 6 things doth the Lord hate . . . a proud look, a lying tongue . . . and he that soweth discord among brethren." (Prov. 6:16-19).

So much for the chant of Kenny Blacksmith, a biddable man who reminds me a bit of Prufrock in T.S. Eliot's eponymous poem:

[O]ne that will do
To swell a progress, start a scene or two,
Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,
Deferential, glad to be of use,
Politic, cautious, and meticulous;
Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse...

So far, I suspect, little real damage has been done--Blacksmith and his following are just more people waiting in the wings, along with the other folks described in McDonald's exposé. But a Harper majority could change everything.

We might recall that the current government is not the first to play this game. The Lubicon Cree, still desperately trying to settle a land-claim, their ancestral lands progressively despoiled, their population ridden with tuberculosis, suffered grievously under the Liberals. And one tactic used by Jean Chrétien, was to invent two Indian bands out of thin air, hoping to lure away Lubicon members. The people of one fake band, the "Woodland Cree," were promised $1000 each if they voted for a federal offer of a pitifully inadequate reserve. They later found out that this would be deducted from their welfare payments.

But the deliberate courting of an idiosyncratic Indian leader as though he actually spoke for First Nations as a whole marks a new and dangerous political departure. The Assembly of First Nations, unsurprisingly, is none too happy with this initiative: "Forgiveness," said AFN president Shawn Atleo, "is an individual choice and a personal decision. No one can forgive on someone else's behalf."

Precisely. But this government will take what forgiveness it can get. All that's missing is repentance.

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