Another Stereotype of the Month entry:
Sep. 1, 2001. 02:00 AM
Minister demands native leader apologize
Accusation that Canada is racist 'sets agenda back'
OTTAWA -- Canada's highest-ranking native leader owes the country an apology for his complaint to a world audience that this is a racist nation, says Indian Affairs Minister Bob Nault.
"With this kind of language and talk, I believe Matthew Coon Come is going to set the agenda back for many years," Nault said in an interview yesterday.
"He's going to find it very difficult for people to do business with him if he's going to make those kinds of serious accusations, which we all take very seriously. People like myself . . . are not just annoyed, we're just beside ourselves."
Nault was responding to news that Coon Come, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, had lambasted Canada for "racist" treatment of aboriginals in speeches preceding the World Conference Against Racism in Durban.
The eight-day United Nations meeting opened yesterday after a week of mounting hostility centred mostly around treatment of Israel.
In two well-attended sessions this week, Coon Come was reportedly applauded as told international delegates of "the oppression, marginalization and dispossession of indigenous peoples" in Canada.
He described a "racist and colonial syndrome of dispossession and discrimination" and said First Nations are being "pushed to the edge of extinction."
In one appearance, he shared the stage with South African Winnie Madikizela-Mandela and likened the challenge faced by aboriginals to the anti-apartheid fight which her former husband, Nelson Mandela, symbolized.
Nault, speaking from his North Ontario constituency, said the attack was unjustified and that Canadians have every right to be outraged.
"Quite frankly, I think Matthew Coon Come owes us an apology," he said.
"There's no proof of this in modern time -- that the Canadian government and the general population are racist towards aboriginal people."
He added Ottawa has made native issues a priority and made strides in working with leaders to resolve differences.
Coon Come gained a national profile as the former Cree grand chief who used tough tactics to successfully fight a huge hydro-electric project planned for aboriginal land in northern Quebec.
He was elected to head the powerful Assembly of First Nations last summer.
Many chiefs who voted for him said it was time for a leader who would take a strong stand with Ottawa.
The leader is now fighting the federal government's plans to modernize the 125-year-old Indian Act and change how Canada's native people on reserves govern themselves.
Coon Come had made no secret of his intentions to embarrass Canada in Durban and draw attention to the plight of aboriginals, who suffer disproportionately higher rates of death, poverty and disease.
He even issued a statement before he left last Sunday and revealed plans for a pre-conference speech to non-governmental organizations -- which took place Thursday -- and a later address to a conference plenary session.
But Nault said Coon Come has gone too far with comments that "are not acceptable for any national leader to make in an international forum."
Twisting the facts
Aboriginal leader issues half-truths at racism conference
"A diplomat," the old line goes, "is a man sent abroad to lie for his country."
So what is Matthew Coon Come, who went abroad at taxpayers' expense to twist the facts about the place of aboriginal people in Canadian society?
Coon Come, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, went to Durban, South Africa, to an already discredited world conference against (some) racism, where he attended one of those "non-governmental organizations" forums for "progressive leaders" who haven't managed to get elected to public office.
And there he recited, Thursday, a litany of accusations and half-truths against Canadians and our government. Let's take a closer look:
- "When our people tried to obtain a moderate livelihood from the sea, white mobs burned our boats and beat our people."
That would be at Burnt Church, N.B., where the Supreme Court said Indian fishermen could have a share of the lobster, but only as part of a government fisheries-management plan. Indian leaders hailed the first part of the ruling, ignored the second, rejected any controls on their fishing, and responded violently to government enforcement efforts. Having taken the law into their own hands, they cry racism when some other fishermen, believing their livelihood threatened, try to do the same.
- "Right across Canada we have been assigned to tiny, marginal areas of land called Indian reserves."
In fact, reserves, increasing in number each year, now total almost 3 million hectares, an area about the size of Vancouver Island, for a total on-reserve population of 385,000. (Some of this land is remote from cities, but it's also true that 35 per cent of on-reserve populations live in urban areas; most off-reserve Indians live in cities, too.) More than $1 billion has been paid to Indians in recent years to settle land claims; many more are in negotiation.
- Ottawa spends $7 billion a year on Indians, Coon Come noted, but he claimed much of it is wasted on bureaucrats.
In fact, of the $4.7 billion spent by the Indian Affairs Department, only about $400 million goes for salaries, benefits and administration. That's too much, no doubt, but it's no disgrace. (The rest of the $7 billion a year is spent by other departments; provincial spending is not included.)
The $7 billion works out to about $10,600 per Indian. All other government program spending adds up to about $3,800 per non-Indian Canadian.
Now let's look at some items Coon Come didn't mention in Durban:
- Taxpayers annually build and renovate 5,000 dwelling units on reserves.
- The Nisga'a treaty of 2000, which might well set a precedent for other land-claims agreements, created a whole new level of government for certain British Columbia bands, and was hailed by aboriginal leaders as a landmark in self-government.
- About 80 other self-government negotiations of various types, covering more than 500 Indian communities, are now in progress.
- Everywhere in Canada, church-sponsored and other small groups work for better mutual understanding between Indians and non-Indians.
- Settlements of aboriginal claims over residential schooling, now widely considered to have been a bad idea, threaten to bankrupt some church congregations, and/or cost Ottawa more billions.
- Indians in the work force are spared more than $1 billion a year in income taxes, because they are exempt.
- More than 27,000 Indians are in post-secondary schools; government pays.
Is this a picture of a systematically racist society? You decide.
Relations between aboriginal people and the rest of us in Canada are far from perfect. But Coon Come helps nobody by peddling distortions in Durban.
Next week, he's supposed to meet with Robert Nault, the minister of Indian affairs, to talk about the process leading up to reform of the Indian Act.
This little show in Durban has a good chance to poison that process, as Coon Come well understands. Does he really want to stall reform? Does he really favour prolonging a situation in which taxpayers spend billions but aboriginal poverty and misery persist? If not, what does he think he's doing?
The main problem with these postings is their attitude toward Coon Come. The idea that he should be a "good Indian" and not protest injustice. The day when indigenous people have to act like the Great White Father tells them to is long gone. Now it's the GWF who'd better act—if he doesn't want worldwide censure.
I don't know if Indian Affairs Minister Bob Nault and columnist Brian Kappler seriously think Coon Come is hurting his cause, or if they're just mad because he's embarrassing them in public. But it's fallacious to claim negotiations can solve every problem and protests can't. For counterexamples, start with the civil rights and anti-war movements of the '60s.
When people won't listen, you need to make them listen. That may mean going over the heads of the people involved and appealing to a national or international audience for support. Or it may mean going beyond appeals to action such as boycotts or lawsuits.
By attacking Coon Come rather than addressing his complains, Nault and Kappler seek to shift the blame. As far as they're concerned, it seems, racism in Canada no longer exists. All the problems have been or are being solved. By raising a stink, they imply, Coon Come is creating problems where none exist.
That spending money necessarily solves problems—and eliminates responsibility for causing those problems—is another fallacy. We've spent billions on health, education, and welfare for minorities in the US, yet inequalities persist. We've lifted many people out of abject poverty...but we've also wasted money on unproductive programs.
What's the point? If the problems persist, so must the spending. It should be targeted, productive spending, with checks and balances to ensure it isn't wasted. But poverty won't go away if we stop trying to alleviate it. (Don't get me started about how "free markets" will create a "rising tide" to lift everyone. Three words: The Great Depression.)
To show how this works, here's one example. Blacks in America have received either no education or inferior education for 200+ years. Is 30 years of "equal" spending enough to counteract that? Judging by the results, apparently not.
As many have said, if you cripple a minority person and then put him at the starting line with a health white person, that isn't a fair race. The same analogy applies to government spending on minority problems. If the present situation took 200+ years of subpar spending to create, it may take 200+ years of spending more on minorities—giving them a superior education—to create the mythical "level playing field."
Another problem with Nault's and Kappler's complaints is even more blatant. Coon Come didn't say the government wasn't spending money. He said Canadian society was racist. There's only a weak, vague connection between government spending and societal attitudes. Canada could give every citizen a billion dollars and it wouldn't necessarily change anyone's racist attitudes.
Nault and Kappler have ignored Coon Come's charges and raised largely unrelated issues. They've painted him a troublemaker for saying what many Aboriginal people believe. That's stereotypical.
Down to brass tacks
I don't know much about the situation in Canada, but Kappler's rhetorical approach is transparent. Most of his claims put a positive spin on the situation, or try to. Let's spin them the other way:
Kappler asks, "Is this a picture of a systematically racist society? You decide." Nault says, "There's no proof of this in modern time -- that the Canadian government and the general population are racist towards aboriginal people." My response: Neither of you have proved Canada's government and society isn't racist. If you have the proof, cough it up.
Basically, Nault and Kappler have barely addressed Coon Come's charges. If this is the best they can do, I suspect Coon Come's charges have merit. I'd say Nault and Kappler should stop complaining and start getting to work.
Highlights of the US report to the UN on racism
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