Straight Talk
DAVID AKIN - More teachers, not warriors, solution to First Nations crisis

Protesters participate in an Idle No More rally against Bill C-45 in Sudbury, ON. on Wednesday, January 2, 2013.

Credits: JOHN LAPPA/QMI AGENCY

DAVID AKIN | PARLIAMENTARY BUREAU CHIEF

OTTAWA - The problem with the barricades, marches, protests and all the other trappings of the militancy associated with the growing Idle No More movement is that it encourages one dangerous idea while discouraging another more productive one.

The dangerous idea it encourages is a belief that there is a magic wand deep in some federal government vault and that, if only the evil prime minister would meet with First Nations leaders, he would produce that magic wand at that meeting, wave it, and all would be well for too many wretched First Nations communities.

But, of course, there is no magic wand. And while Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence, Idle No More protesters and their supporters in the House of Commons and outside of it currently have Stephen Harper playing the role of the evil villain, it is worth noting that militants of other eras once cast Pierre Trudeau, Brian Mulroney and Jean Chretien in the role now played by Harper and for the same basic reason: They were failing to wave the magic wand and make it all better.

Trudeau sparked the wrath of militants when, in 1969, his government proposed the abolition of the Indian Act and the transfer to the provinces of administrative responsibilities for First Nations. First Nations leaders who opposed this idea formed the National Indian Brotherhood, the predecessor organization to today's Assembly of First Nations.

In 1990, Mulroney was the villainous PM during the Oka crisis. And during his time as PM, Chretien was cast in the role and blamed for stalled land claims talks by the Dene of the Northwest Territories and the Innu of Labrador.

At the root of all these conflicts, as the current Assembly of First Nations Chief Shawn Atleo noted Thursday, is "a broken system that does not address long-standing disparities between First Nations and the rest of Canada, and address priorities in ways that will provide for long-term solutions and sustainability."

Now, Chief Atleo is not a radical and has some sensible ideas about "long-term solutions and sustainability." That fact, peculiarly enough, has been his political liability in First Nations politics where leaders, more often than not, must have more in common with warriors than, as Atleo does, with teachers.

Though he won re-election as AFN national chief last summer, Atleo had to overcome a strong challenge from Pam Palmeter, who wanted a more radical, militant, warrior-like AFN. As she launched her campaign to unseat Atleo last summer, she quite specifically accused him of being too "nice" to Harper's Conservatives and made the bizarre claim that Atleo was taking Canada's First Nations down the path to assimilation.

Palmeter then - and now - would have First Nations go to the barricades as if that is all that it would take to fix the Crown-First Nation relationship.
Atleo has a different call to action: To the classroom.

In his own life (he has a master's degree in education), in his work as a leader of Pacific Coast First Nations, and now as national chief, Atleo has seen how poverty, violence, and despair in First Nations communities can be eliminated when men, women, and children are taught new skills and knowledge. But education takes time, hard work, and patience, and while it almost always produces results, they may not be seen for years or even decades.

Atleo's focus on education is the good idea that is being endangered by the false promise of quick change through militant protests.

Sending armies of teachers across the land, though, is not confrontational enough for too many First Nations leaders. Nor does it give protesters the satisfaction of venting one's anger at a far-off evil villain in Ottawa.

More blockades or protests or millions more from Ottawa's treasury will not solve problems too long untended. They can only be solved in the classroom.


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