Friday, November 19, 2010


Once again, the halls of parliament are rife with cries of righteous indignation among the opposition coalition regarding the defeat this week of a Private Member’s Bill in the Senate.

Bill C-311 was introduced by the NDP in the House of Commons and sponsored in the Senate by their would-be coalition partner, the Liberals through Senator Grant Mitchell

Senator Mitchell chose to spin the vote he unwittingly caused to occur this way: “Killing Bill C-311 shows a fundamental lack of respect for the many Canadians who care deeply about climate change. They had a right to have this bill debated properly.”

Let’s be crystal clear: Our government wanted to debate this bill. We had serious concerns regarding its proposed provisions. We were ready, willing and prepared to put these on the record. We would not have obstructed its path through parliament.

Canadian’s rights and the application of democracy were by no means impinged. The Liberals forced the vote on their own coalition’s bill. They created the conditions which brought about the vote. They could have done otherwise and did not.

The opposition hyperbole around the vote results continued. Jack Layton stated that he believes Stephen Harper is allowing the unelected senators to wield their power to subvert the democratic decision of the House of Commons.

What Mr. Layton and others conveniently forget, fail to grasp or seek to conceal is that were they to apply their own power, as elected Members of Parliament, they could work with the government to bring about Senate Reform.

We pushed the matter in the House yesterday. We sought unanimous consent to pass C-10, the Senate term limits bill which would have delivered eight-year term limits. Contending that the bill is flawed, unanimous consent was not granted.

So, out of one side of their mouths the opposition accuses the government of subverting democracy. Yet when given the chance to exercise such democracy, the still-thriving Liberal/NDP Coalition retreats from the challenge.

It’s an appropriate time to remind Canadians that after the last election, the NDP set out to form a Coalition to overturn the election results. That Coalition would have appointed Coalition members to the Senate.

We’re prepared to reform the Senate. We’ve been entirely consistent on this and will continue to be. We are also prepared to work to ensure that completely irresponsible legislation like Bill C-311 does not pass, kicking the daylights out of the Canadian economy.

We were equally prepared to debate Bill C-311 until the sponsor chose to bring the matter to a vote. The Coalition opposition knew of our concerns with the bill’s proposed provisions. They caused the conditions for a vote to occur. They made the step that precluded the potential for debate. The coalition talk out of both sides of its mouth shows them to be, as the old adage goes, “all talk and no trousers”.

The Upper Chamber of Canada’s parliament is no place to play games like this in the midst of such a serious undertaking.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

NWAC and Sisters in Spirit – context not controversy

It continues to baffle me that in some circles, significant action on issues is met with attitude and spin designed to purposely create controversy.  This is certainly the case with APTN’s distorted coverage of the Native Women’s Association of Canada’s position on the recently announced $10 million dealing with the plight of missing and murdered Aboriginal women.
NWAC has issued three different news releases on the matter within the last ten days; one applauds the announcement and the other two deals with concerns around the funding.  On the basis of APTN’s coverage around these releases, it would appear that these concerns follow a meeting of the NWAC Board of Directors held after the announcement of the $10 million on October 29, 2010 in downtown Vancouver.
It’s hard to get a clear sense of the real facts around this as the APTN news reports are rife with errors and mistruths.  One thing is clear and needs affirmation:  NWAC’s role in this matter has been pivotal.  Further, it bears noting that NWAC was apprised of the announcement before it was made.  They were on the podium for its introduction, and NWAC’s national office was instrumental in many of the announcement logistics, including choosing the elder who gave the blessing which opened the ceremony.
Another matter needs clarity in the face of APTN’s very skewed coverage:  No one, especially NWAC, “was kept in the dark until the last minute” regarding the announcement.  
Let’s be clear, the efforts of NWAC in undertaking the Sisters in Sprit initiative have delivered impetus that has directly led to the $10 million federal investments that will contribute to means that seek to overcome the tragic toll of missing and murdered Aboriginal women has had on victims’ families and their communities.
NWAC itself spoke with frustration last year at hearings of the Standing Senate Committee on Human Rights regarding the ongoing call for data before commencing action in the face of issues.  In her testimony to the Committee the NWAC Health Director noted, “You want numbers to be able to do something about (an) issue.  How much is enough?  How many suicides is enough? Is one enough? Is a hundred enough? When do we reach a point where we can actually say that is enough; let us move to action. A really frustrating part of what we do is trying to provide information that the government needs: Give us the picture, help us understand how big this issue is, give us the numbers. It is all around numbers.”
While the issue might have been different, NWAC’s wisdom on the matter still resonates clearly.  Enough of problem definition -- we must move to action.  And that is exactly what the federal government has done in making this announcement.
The fact that NWAC’s position on the funding of measures to deal with missing and murdered Aboriginal women seems to have changed since a meeting of its board of directors speaks more to the organization’s internal politics than to benefits to the community that these investments seeks to deliver.
 In one of its numerous news releases, NWAC asserts that the funding model through Status if Women Canada will fund any future Sisters in Spirit activity “will affect (its) recognition on an international, national and local level.   
Should this be the aim of such investments?  Should organizational profile trump provisions to help people?
NWAC readily deserves significant credit for its past and current efforts in respect of the Sisters in Spirit initiative.  But it is of no justice or comfort to the families of the victims to suggest that anything linked to the announcement of $10 million in action designed to build upon the previous $5 million invested over five years represents unnecessary pain to victims’ families and communities.
This is not only untrue it’s irresponsible to suggest as much.
There has been myriad good works delivered on this matter by the Native Women’s Association of Canada.  I believe that NWAC has a role to play in ongoing policy collaboration around ways and means to improve the safety and socio-economic health of Aboriginal women in Canada.  NWAC has provided invaluable data to aid in overcoming this tragic situation.
Constructive discussions around further collaboration will hopefully yield positive results.  In the final analysis, it’s important to bear in mind that good faith has brought about great progress and investment in these matters thus far.  Let’s hope that such good faith continues to prevail and that coverage around it reflects accuracy and balance.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

The State of Aboriginal Post-Secondary Education in Canada

Much has been said recently about the state of First Nations education in Canada. First Nations leaders have been talking about the 2% funding cap, stated First Nations schools are funded 25% less than Provincial schools, First Nations students receive approximately $2000 less than non-Aboriginal students and that the federal government will "pull" post-secondary education funding. I will treat with each of these points below.

As a starting point, I believe everyone agrees that education is important and is the major key for First Nations students from getting out of poverty-stricken situations and for creating the very best opportunties in achieving success and living better lives. If that is the end goal, I couldn't agree more and I wholeheartedly believe in that.

Let's now turn to the facts:

It was the former Liberal government in 1997-98 who introduced the 2% funding cap. Regardless, it is still in place today and INAC is currently doing an internal review and are supposed to report back to the government in the very near future.

With regards to First Nations schools being funded 25% less than Provincial schools, I have yet to see facts, data and/or documentation that supports these figures but I am looking into it and would encourage anyone who has these facts on hand to share them with me. If this is the case, the question that must be answered is this: are First Nations communities being funded less by INAC because they do not pay taxes on reserve?

With respect to First Nations students receiving $2000 less than non-Aboriginal students, again, I have yet to see these facts and figures in black and white. I am in no way suggesting these aren't real but I have not been exposed to the factual figures that have been perpetuated in the media recently.  Again, I am doing my very best to get to the bottom of these issues.

There has been much fearmongering by some Aboriginal leaders that someway, somehow, the federal government will "pull" the education funding. This is complete and utter nonsense. I have never heard anyone talk about taking away funding for First Nations students. To the contrary, I have heard people talk about ensuring we collectively do a better job to improve and facilitate access to post-secondary funding, improve graduation rates and give First Nations people the same education opportunities as non-Aboriginal Canadians.

There are many First Nations communities across the country who have made education a priority. There are educated professionals who dedicate a lot of time and energy in promoting education on reserves, teaching, work as assistants, school directors and principals who do their utmost best to improve the education system and work for the benefit of their students.

Sadly, there are other communities who are not so successful. In some cases, it is a lack of vision, a lack of ambition, poor socio-economic conditions, weak governance or a lack of accountability, to name a few. Let me now turn to the issue of accountability as it pertains to Aboriginal education.

First, many First Nations communities don't spend 100% of the funding they receive for education on education. Who pays the price for these decisions? Students do. Many First Nations communities utilize education funding for raising chief and council salaries, increasing per diems, for travel purposes, reparing roads, hiring people for unnecessary positions within the band council etc...For example, if a community receives $5 million for post-secondary education and spends $3 Million on education, that is $2 Million un-spent on education. Who pays the price for that? Again, students do. Secondly, when band councils take money from the education budget and spend it on something else, this creates a surplus in the education budget, which means they have not spent all the funding they received for education on education. Band councils can do this without being penalized because the education budget, through the terms and conditions of the INAC funding agreements on education permits chiefs and councils to do this. Chiefs and band councils are fully aware of this so when they "borrow" or take funding from the education budget, they are in fact punishing prospective students from accessing funding that is rightfully theirs. What about students who access post-secondary education funding and drop out of school? This also creates a surplus because the money is there and is not being spent UNLESS a student on a waiting list is quickly replaced but you could appreciate that a student who starts College or University in September and quits in November, it's very difficult to replace that student with another in the middle of a term in order to spend all the education funding. Third, there are situations where only students who are close to the chief and council are eligible to access education funding. In some cases, if you are part of the wrong family, you are likely not going to get assistance. This is obviously not the case everywhere but it does happen. What about band members who live off-reserve? Can they ALL access post-secondary education funding even though they are band members? The answer is sadly no. Often times, off-reserve band members cannot access education funding because of the fact they live off-reserve. In many situations, they are at the back of the line for education funding because on-reserve students have priority. Fourth, what about the fact that post-secondary education funding, which First Nations communities receive is based on an eligible student per capital funding basis? In other words, every First Nations community is required to submit a list of potential students who may attend post-secondary and are funded according to those lists submitted? I have asked INAC to clarify this with certainty and have yet to hear from them. The examples above are not rumours or hearsay. These are concrete examples that First Nations people have shared with me throughout the years. They happen, they are a living reality for many First nations people and they are challenges that must be overcome. For anyone to turn a blind eye to these facts, deny they are either not happening or are just isolated cases is irresponsible, unfactual and a lie. If we step back and consider all of the above facts and in particular, some First Nations accumulating a surplus on education funding(meaning they have not spent 100% funding on education), becomes very difficult and challenging for them to ask for additional resources.

In 2009, INAC conducted an internal audit of its management, oversight and monitoring of the post-secondary education program, which is availble on their website. Here are its conclusions: "Internal audit is unable to provide assurance, as key components are lacking, that the program's management control framework is adequate and effective in ensuring the achievement of program objectives. In terms of regional controls for administering recipient contributions, Internal Audit concludes that while established procedures are in place for obtaining and reviewing performance and financial reporting, monitoring and compliance auditing activities are not sufficiently robust to provide assurance that there is consistent compliance with applicable legislation and policy program frameworks.

Internal Audit is in the opinion that:

- the funding authorities currently in use, coupled with the limited tracking of how funds are spent, do not support the sound stewardship of program funds;
- current allocation methodologies do not ensure that eligible students across the country have equitable access to post-secondary education;
- the program's performance measurement framework does not provide relevant or complete data to properly measure and assess program results;
- limited monitoring is conducted of recipient compliance with program and funding agreement Terms and Conditions and compliance auditing levels are inadequate; and
- ISSP funding is not adequately addressing the expected program results of increased availability of post-seocondary education programs".

In other words, accountability is a two-way street and like I have consistently said, both INAC and band councils have a responsibility in the success of Aboriginal education as it currently stands.

How do we overcome the problems associated with Aboriginal education? What are the solutions that will get us there? In answer to my own question, I believe the post-secondary education funding should be taken out of the hands of band councils and be put in the hands of First Nations people themselves. Why should we have band councils administer education funding when First Nations students could receive education funding directly. Who better manage the post-secondary education funds than First Nations individuals themsleves? Why not send funding directly into the hands of students rather than have band councils decide who or who is not entitled for post-secondary education funding? Why leave the discretionary decision left to band councils? Without going further into this discussion, I invite you to read the following position paper, co-written by Calvin Helin, a successful First Nationsperson, lawyer, author and business leader at the following link: I wholeheartedly agree with the recommendations of this paper and I think it is a potential solution forward. If that's not viable, another option is for First Nations communities to either create their own school boards where they would administer funds or amalgamate with provincial school boards.

After all, education should not be about INAC, chiefs and band councils receiving money, managing that money and making discretionary decisions on who is entitled to receive that money, it's about ensuring every First Nations person has access to the funding available and to an education equitable to non-Aboriginal people.

The fact remains, the majority of First Nations students do have access to funding to pursue their education dreams. This is something non-Aboriginal people do not have access to.  Non-Aboriginal students graduate and are left with huge debts, First Nations students(for the most part) do not. I will not open the pandora's box as to whether education is an Aboriginal and Treaty Right because until this is proved in a court of law, I will refrain from pronouncing myself on the matter. People can speculate or interpret Treaties as much as they want but the reality remains, regardless of how one views Aboriginal education in terms of rights, these rights must be proved in court. However, I will say that access to free post-secondary education is a privilege - one that as many First Nations people should take advantage of because it is the key to success.

I view Aboriginal education as a priority and I will continue to do what I have to do so that as many First Nations people have access to education funding as possible. More money may not be the only answer. Many more factors come into play. Accountability is a huge aspect. In my view, before more money is given to band councils without having all the facts on hand such as the First Nation vs non-Aboriginal ratio for education, until we know how much money is received by every band council, if they spend 100% of their funding they receive for education on education and if eligible students have access to these funds, I don't believe money is the answer. This is my personal opinion. If it is demonstrated with certainty and undeniable fact that band councils are underfunded, then there should be consideration of putting more money in the system as long as results follow.

In the end, we are all working towards the same goals with perhaps differing ways to get there. We all care about our children's futures and education is the promising way to get there. I am eager, open and looking forward to working with anyone that wants to work with me. The Senate Standing Committee on Aboriginal Peoples is currently studying Aboriginal Education K-12 and the Senate Standing on Social Affairs, Science&Technology is currently studying post-secondary education. Good work is currently being conducted and I look forward to hearing from you on these matters. Let's get there together because education is not only for our children, education is a life-long journey that also applies to us.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Freedom of speech isn’t freedom to hide

Lateral violence in the blogging age

It’s no secret that I’m a big fan of free speech.  I’m equally dedicated to recognizing and embracing the freedoms in our society that both enable and permit freedom of expression across the diverse groups that comprise Canadian society.

Earlier this in year, in fact, I had the privilege of adding my voice to the debate in the Senate of Canada around the future of freedom of speech in Canada.  For First Nations people in the country, I believe this is incredibly important.

The concept of freedom of speech is fundamental to democratic government. It’s said that “the test of democracy is freedom of criticism”.  It’s so true that healthy, provocative, and even intense debate is at the very root of our democracy.  Yet, so many in our country – and what’s far worse, in our own Aboriginal community – seem take these freedoms almost entirely for granted (more on this later).

Freedom of speech is not, as some suggest, an American concept.  It’s an extension of free will.  It’s a by-product of democracy.  What’s more, it is an idea that‘s reflective of the notion that all men and women were created equal.  Freedom of speech knows no political station, no power structure nor race, colour or creed.  

Given this, how sad it is that we seem as a society to consider freedom of speech as less important than ensuring none might become offended by the hard truths of 21st century living. After all, there’s a fine line between freedom of speech and respect. 

As an Aboriginal person, I am all too well aware of how freedom of speech is used as a tool to promote prejudice, division, mistruths and even hatred.

There are those who believe and generally practice that freedom of expression and free speech work in only one direction – those who insist on being able to express their views and opinions while denying others the opportunity to challenge those views or correct the record created when mistruths are spoken as fact. 

One needs look no further than the myriad blogs on the internet that spew forth opinion, innuendo and allegation as fact.  In many instances, the writer more often than not will not have the conviction to claim ownership of the practice. 

The line between speaking freely and being spoken to freely without responsibility should not exist – but sadly, it most assuredly does. 

As Canada’s first peoples, we need to be able to freely define our aspirations, to debate the real root causes of poverty in our communities and most importantly to compellingly prescribe the cure for the ills that confront us – in a constructive, productive manner. 

This can’t happen in a vacuum where people live in fear of retribution and retaliation if they have the courage to speak out.  This will not happen if divergent opinion is termed racist – and it surely will not happen without the full engagement and participation of grassroots Aboriginal peoples, convicted and convinced enough of the need to embrace the need for change.

We mustn’t take on this complex matter lightly.  There are still numerous ‘fine lines’ that are to be found intertwined in this subject. 

There is the line between freedom of speech and freedom of expression which must not be crossed --, and that is in the instance where freedom of expression can readily lead to lateral violence. 

Lateral violence happens when people who are both victims of a situation of dominance, in fact, turn on each other rather than confront the system that oppresses them both. Lateral violence occurs when individual members of oppressed groups internalize feelings such as anger and rage, and manifest their feelings through behaviours such as gossip, jealousy, putdowns and blaming.

I can understand lateral violence and its causes.  I can empathize with those who adopt it as a preferred method   But I can’t even begin to understand why a few certain members of a community so rife with challenges to overcome would wish to adopt the practice and carry it out anonymously as a default position.

Lateral violence achieves nothing of worth.  Lateral violence constructs nothing. It only obstructs and destroys any sense of the achievement of progress and the creation of hope.  To those who practice it, I challenge to you to show me something of worth to grassroots people that was, is or will be created through lateral violence.

In the face of the practice such lateral violence, it’s important to emphasise the line between freedom of speech and the freedom to knowingly misrepresent the truth.  There are clear lines between our rights to free speech and our rights to protect ourselves from purposeful misrepresentation of fact, slander and libel. 

Freedom of speech is often a right that we might sometimes take for granted.  I mentioned I would add more on this earlier in this posting, and here it is:  I welcome your comments if you’ve the conviction to stand by them.  I don’t accept anonymous posts on this blog.

In First Nations communities, the affirmation of the right to freedom of speech is something that needs to be taught, exercised and most importantly, rigorously defended in light of anything that attempts to trump it, short of hate-crime.

It’s essential to understand that for Canada’s First Nations peoples, in our hearts and souls this is indeed our home and native land – and one in which the ability to prosper and to speak should be equally as strong and as free as our nation is.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Missing and Murdered Aboriginal Women

On October 29, 2010, the Conservative government announced its plan to deal with the issue of missing and murdered Aboriginal women in Canada. There are close to 600 cases of Aboriginal women that have gone missing or murdered in this country with very few/limited investigations, unanswered questions and few services for the families of the victims.

During the 2010 Speech From The Throne and in Budget 2010, the federal government announced it would tackle this issue head on. After months of consultations and discussions with different stakeholders, a plan was announced that will:

  • invest $10 million over two years to improve community safety and to ensure that the justice system and law enforcement agencies can better respond to cases of missing and murdered Aboriginal women;
  • will improve law enforcement and the justice system through:
    • A new National Police Support Centre for Missing Persons to help police forces across Canada by providing coordination and specialized support in missing persons investigations;
    • A national “tip” Web site for missing persons;
    • Enhancing the Canadian Police Information Centre database to capture additional missing persons data;
    • Amendments to the Criminal Code to streamline the warrants application process where wiretaps are required in missing person cases; and
    • A comprehensive list of best practices to help communities, law enforcement and justice partners in future work.
    The measures will also improve:
    • Federal funding for culturally appropriate victims services through provinces and territories; as well as funding for Aboriginal groups to help the families of missing and murdered Aboriginal women;
    • New awareness materials, pilot projects and new school- and community-based pilot projects targeted to young Aboriginal women; and
    • New community safety plans to be developed to enhance the safety of women living in Aboriginal communities.
In short, it is the first time any government has ever responded in any strategic way to dealing with this ever pressing issue and in order to be successful, all stakeholders mentioned above all have roles and responsibilities to fulfill. Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal men must also be part of the solution in the roll-out of this plan because as men, our role is to protect our women from these predators.

From 2005-2010, the Native Women's Association of Canada received approximately $5 Million dollars to initiate the research of our missing and murdered Aboriginal women. It must be noted that NWAC was the lead role and will continue to play a major part in addressing this issue as the government's plan unfolds. As a matter of fact, NWAC will receive approximately $500,000 to continue working on missing and murdered Aboriginal women. Unfortunately, the critics have already come out stating NWAC have had their buget "cut" with Liberal and NDP MP's endorsing this false position. Here are the facts: NWAC received $5 million over 5 years. The Conservative government announced $10 Million over 2 years. The question that must be answered is the following: is it more important to fully tackle this issue that includes law enforcement officials, improvement to the justice system, resources for victim's families, resources for community safety programs, awareness and education materials, the continued particpation of NWAC, Aboriginal organizations and chiefs or is it more important that NWAC retain its 1 Million dollar funding as opposed to the $500,000 that it will receive? I think the math is quite simple and I think the answer is quite simple. This is by no means a slight at NWAC because they have delivered. Rather, it's a slight at the Liberal and NDP critics who have come out swinging at the Conservative government without having allowed the plan to begin rolling out and for using this unfortunate issue as a means to take swipes at the announcement. To those critics, I say, where were you in the last 5 years, what solutions did you propose, what recommendations did you provide the government? What plan would you have in place? The easiest thing is to criticize, the hard part is to share alternative solutions, which they have not done. Point is, the Conservative government said it would deliver, it delivered.