Friday, April 10, 2009

The only good Indian...

We'll let Indian and Northern Affairs Minister Chuck Strahl complete that apothegm in the time-honoured way.

Fellow blogger Cameron Holstrom has been chewing away at the Attawapiskat school scandal for some time now. A while ago I joined a blogburst about the Conservative government's refusal to build a new school for this impoverished First Nation, whose children have been having to make do with portables in all weathers since 2000, after diesel fumes made their local school uninhabitable.

Minister Strahl's attitude towards aboriginal people has always been negative. Some quotations give the flavour of the man's antipathy:

On gravel excavation by the Cheam Indian band: "I do not even think the land they scalped the gravel from is theirs." (The Canadian Index, May 17, 1999, Volume: Vol. 10, No. 14)

On aboriginal fisheries: "In a recent Chilliwack Progress article, Strahl compared Cheam band members to 'children.'" (Canada News-Wire, September 13, 1993)

On concerns that aboriginal programs for substance abuse, anger management and family violence were not being offered at a prison: "Strahl said he has little empathy for [this] position. Strahl said there is plenty of attempts to be sensitive to aboriginal culture in prison to the point at which other inmates, who are not aboriginal, are bitter about it. "If I got a letter like that, I wouldn't put it on my high-speed to do list." (Chilliwack Times, November 22, 2002)

On aboriginal fishing rights: "The government has an obligation to all of its citizens, not just to select groups," said B.C. Reform MP Chuck Strahl. "It cannot allow the courts to draw racial boundaries through Canada's national resources." (Windsor Star, October 16, 1999)

On the Nisga'a agreement: "Let us look at this Nisga'a treaty one more time. First of all it creates a state within a state, an idea which I think the Bloc Quebecois would find fairly palatable. This is sovereignty association in the heart of British Columbia." (Chuck Strahl, Hansard, May 4, 1999)

But Strahl is more a symptom than the disease itself, which is the traditional Conservative (and to be fair, Liberal) disregard for Native people. The case of the Lubicon, for example, continues to stand as a living testimonial to decades of racism and neglect by successive Liberal and Conservative administrations.

In any case, last month the government began to tear down the abandoned school. That released enough diesel fumes, containing benzene (a known carcinogen), to permeate the portable classrooms and make the children sick.

Plans are now underway to evacuate the kids, who stand to lose their school year. And this will be on the Attawapiskat First Nation's nickel, according to the capable
Grand Chief Stan Louttit of the Mushkegowuk Council, which represents seven First Nations including Attawapiskat. The federal and provincial governments are simply refusing to help.

Susan Bertrand, spokesperson for Indian and Northern Affairs, tells us there is no immediate threat to the community. What are a few headaches, nosebleeds and cases of nausea, after all? They're just...Indians. Let 'em all live on floodplains and die of TB and have their kids pass out in school portables from diesel fumes. Strahl himself is quite willing in this instance, it seems, to sacrifice a few Indian kids just to save face. But let's be optimistic: maybe some time in the future some Prime Minister or other will offer up another empty apology.

The Ontario government, at present, is waiting for Ottawa to take the lead. That could be a long wait indeed under the current Minister.

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