Old problems need new solutions -- politicians shouldn't be criticized for listening
When the Conservative party recently announced the formation of its Aboriginal Caucus -- led by MP Rod Bruinooge and also featuring MPs Leona Aglukkaq, Shelly Glover and Rob Clarke as well as Senators Patrick Brazeau and Gerry St Germain -- Canada's opposition parties found a convenient way of distracting people from the fact that the Tories can boast more aboriginals in their caucus than any other party.
They pointed to a speech delivered to the caucus by Calvin Helin and accused the caucus of heresy in regard to aboriginal affairs.
Helin is the author of Dances With Dependency. In the book he argues that the old system of political clientelism and paternalism has shoehorned Canada's First Nations into a position of poverty-perpetuating economic dependency. He also identifies a severe democratic deficit in many First Nations, as the leadership of organizations like the Assembly of First Nations and Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs are elected not by the citizens of First Nations, but rather by chiefs.
Helin argues that many of these chiefs are tending not to the needs and interests of their constituents, but rather to their own institutional interests, and he insists that they need to be changed.
Among the Conservative aboriginal caucus, Patrick Brazeau formerly served as the National Chief of the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples.
Perhaps the most revelatory comments about the entire issue came from Liberal MP Anita Neville, who simply wrote off Helin's speech as "nonsense".
"I'd rather them hear from the [native] leadership and not someone who is critical of the leadership," Neville said.
Of course, if Helin were simply another white man perpetually looking down his nose at aboriginals -- a comment often made about Tom Flanagan, and sometimes not without merit -- that very much would be one thing. But Helin is a member of BC's Tsimshian First Nation. His father Barry is a hereditary chief of the Gitlaan tribe, and his mother Verna is a member of the royal House of 'Wiiseeks of the Ginaxangiik tribe.
In other words, Calvin Helin would actually stand to personally benefit from maintaining the current political structure of First Nations governance. When such an individual is calling for change, our federal politicians should listen.
That individuals like Neville would suggest that politicians should only listen to First Nations leaders and ignore their critics is not only extremely foolish, it's also tacitly undemocratic.
Opposition leaders sputter in outrage when the government appears to be ignoring dissent. To institutionally exclude dissenters from the debate is to do much worse than ignore them.
Rod Bruinooge, Patrick Brazeau and the rest of the Conservative Aboriginal Caucus are listening. Considering that decades of Liberal party-backed clientelist and paternalist aboriginal policies have left aboriginals mired in poverty, individuals like Neville could stand to listen, too -- or at the very least hold their tongues while others do.