CHARLOTTETOWN - The murder of yet another aboriginal girl has captured the country’s attention. But the political fracas since 15-year-old Tina Fontaine’s death — over whether to call a national inquiry into violence against native women — won’t focus our attention on where we need to go.
In recent days Canada’s premiers not only joined the chorus for an inquiry, they pounced on Prime Minister Stephen Harper for refusing to go along. By personalizing their disagreement — demonizing the PM — they risked distracting Canadians and diverting us from the bigger goal.
Harper’s persona is beside the point. By piling on the PM — pointing our fingers instead of pointing the way — we risk oversimplifying a deep-rooted national catastrophe, recasting it into a fight between victims and villains, good and evil, progressive politicians and reactionary ones.
That’s too much rhetoric and not enough resolve.
Belatedly, the premiers have wisely climbed down from their perch — by promising to do their own part. While the federal government has the main constitutional and historical responsibility for aboriginal people, the provinces are hardly powerless to help.
After sitting down with native groups Wednesday — on the eve of their annual premiers summit Thursday — it was painfully obvious that the provinces couldn’t demand more dialogue from Ottawa without showing evidence that their own conversations with native leaders could lead to something beyond hand-wringing.
Harper hasn’t helped himself with his tone-deaf comments insisting that native deaths are entirely a police matter. He knows better — the causes are self-evidently socio-economic.
He also bears much responsibility for the lack of progress on native issues under his watch. But Harper isn’t the first politician to let our native people down.
In fact, the plight of aboriginal Canadians has been studied to death, notably by the 1996 Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples — which took five years and $58 million to produce a 4,000-page report with 440 recommendations that were largely ignored.
That Harper hasn’t heeded many of those lessons is key. What natives need, however, isn’t another round of research but a resurgence of political will.
Aboriginal author Thomas King writes in his eminently readable (and highly recommended) history of natives in North America, The Inconvenient Indian: “Probably the most embarrassing aspect of the Royal Commission . . . was the speed with which the report was buried. Alive.”
As King notes with his fondness for irony, the report was commissioned by a Tory prime minister (Brian Mulroney) but shelved by a Liberal PM (Jean Chrétien). Royal Commissions, he concludes, “have become the Canadian alternative to action.”
Despite Harper’s obtuseness, most Canadians already know that low socio-economic status and family breakdown will leave aboriginal women and girls vulnerable to violence. The PM’s promise of better policing comes as little solace.
What Canadians need to learn from both their prime minister and their provincial premiers is how they can offer concrete help for housing, clean water, education, training, better economic prospects. As the premiers are slowly acknowledging, they have the power to act — not just act out their hostility to Harper.
Rather than a full-blown inquiry staffed by armies of lawyers and researchers, the premiers are now gravitating to a compromise idea — a national roundtable proposed by the Native Women’s Association of Canada. A less freighted roundtable would bring key federal ministers (if not the PM himself) together with aboriginal organizations, police chiefs and others who could work out a plan of action, without retracing past steps.
As for the premiers, they have just participated in a roundtable of their own with native leaders. Now they, too, need to show the way forward in their own realms.