On May 30, Prime Minister Stephen Harper alienated Canada’s Indigenous population by telling them they had no place on a national hunting and fishing advisory panel, and Environment Minister Peter Kent has not softened that position since that day.
Ernie Crey, a former employee of Fisheries and Oceans Canada, who now serves as senior adviser to the Sto:lo Tribal Council on the Fraser River, said the minister is taking a dangerous step backwards in light of the progress that has been made in recent years.
“I was quite taken aback by the Minister of the Environment, who said–if you want to put it into plain English–‘I don’t want to talk to Indians, to Aboriginal people. I don’t think I have to talk to them, and if they want to talk to government, they can talk to the Minister of Indian Affairs or someone else,’” Crey said.
On June 4, Kent explained that the panel, composed of 19 member groups ranging from provincial wildlife federations to environmental stewardship organizations like Ducks Unlimited and the Pacific Salmon Foundation, was struck “to create a dialogue with this important segment of the population who have previously been under-consulted.”
By contrast, Kent argued, First Nations are “routinely engaged in consultations on a wide array of subjects, including hunting, fishing and conservation,” which, apparently, makes their participation redundant or unnecessary.
On June 11, the minister’s press secretary, Adam Sweet, turned down Windspeaker’s request for an interview with the minister or a ministry spokesperson.
“Minister Kent is not available for an interview, but I encourage you to take a look at his statement, which specifically addresses your question,” Sweet wrote, before pasting in a paragraph from Kent’s June 4 statement and a link to Harper’s original May 30 announcement of the hunting and fishing panel. The press secretary then concluded the e-mail with, “Thanks, and have a nice day.”
Crey said the Fraser River had been one of the battlegrounds for Aboriginal fishing rights and the scene of numerous confrontations over the past several decades. But these days, Aboriginal, sport and commercial stakeholder groups, along with officials from DFO and environmental groups, now take part in the Fraser River Salmon Table Society. Sitting at one table as equals, Crey said the society discusses matters from allocation of fish to habitat restoration and development on the river.
“These efforts are working because they’re not prompted by government intervention,” Crey said.
While Crey said he believes consultations between the Environment minister and wildlife/environmental organizations should normally be considered a positive thing, in this instance, the government is currently in the process of finessing changes to the Federal Fisheries Act, by way of the omnibus Budget Bill (Bill C-38). That places the specific exclusion of Aboriginal organizations from an advisory panel in a more insidious light.
“This has to be a serious omission, to exclude the Aboriginal voices, and I don’t think we should just stand aside,” Crey said. “I put it this way so the minister can understand just how badly he has insulted us.”
Jean Crowder, NDP Opposition Critic for Aboriginal Affairs, echoed Crey’s concerns. Crowder, MP for Nanaimo-Cowichan, spoke to Windspeaker on Wednesday, June 13, shortly before Canada’s Opposition parties launched a marathon session of Parliament, with votes on hundreds of individual amendments to Bill C-38.
“Given that Bill C-38 is going to strip away significant amounts of protection for fish, I would question the Prime Minister saying that this panel is going to help with a balanced perspective,” Crowder said.
Included in Bill C-38 are $5 million in cuts to environmental monitoring and a new $8 million provision for what amounts to government surveillance on environmental groups.
Crowder cited a statement from Grand Chief Stewart Phillip of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs: “...I have the sneaking suspicion that [Harper] was so paranoid about First Nations participation that he has attempted to remove us completely from the national conversation.”
Crowder noted that the Environment minister has issued dire warnings about environmental organizations that receive funding from foreign sources. “What they are going to do is put the fear into these organizations that if they speak up, they will be subject to some sort of scrutiny,” Crowder said.
If the environmental groups tasked with providing “a balanced perspective” to the panel haven’t necessarily been co-opted by government, their freedom of action has been compromised, Crowder said.
Factor in the exclusion of First Nations, Metis and Inuit voices, and it begins to look like a deliberate strategy to legitimize a toothless advisory body.
“This government has continued to indicate it doesn’t want to hear from anyone who doesn’t agree with it,” she said.
Crey said he has received messages from members of some of the organizations named to the panel, including the B.C. Wildlife Federation, expressing their dismay over the exclusion of Aboriginal groups.
“I think he’s made a serious mistake and he needs to correct it. He needs to look at how he’s come across,” Crey said. “There are now people on the panel who are saying ‘This is wrong.’”
At the Fur Institute of Canada office in Ottawa, executive director Rob Cahill said the invitation to join the federal advisory panel came as a pleasant surprise, at first.
“Originally, we were just pleased that ‘A,’ the panel was struck, and ‘B,’ that our organization was chosen,” Cahill said. “But I very quickly received a note from one of our members–an Aboriginal harvesting group–who saw the lack of Aboriginal representation and inquired how they could be added to the panel.”
Cahill said FIC has an Aboriginal communications committee that is scheduled to meet this month in Iqualuit, and the advisory panel would be part of the discussions.
Like Ernie Crey, he also believes Canada’s Indigenous people should be able to sit at the table as equals in any discussion regarding their traditional territories. That’s over and above any constitutional requirement to consult, he explained.
“Personally, I would think that Aboriginal communities would be sitting at a higher level, because they have [constitutional protections] for addressing these issues, but we believe all environmental issues and rural community issues are better handled when all the stakeholders are sitting around the same table,” Cahill said.
Shortly after Kent released his statement, Crey spoke with Conservative Chilliwack-Fraser Canyon Member of Parliament Mark Strahl, who promised to meet with the minister to discuss the exclusion. Strahl is the son of former Conservative Minister for Indian Affairs and Northern Development Chuck Strahl.
“[Mark Strahl] knows that, right in his backyard, we’re making great strides in our efforts with sport and commercial fishermen,” Crey said, adding, “He hasn’t gotten back to me yet.”
In response to Windspeaker’s inquiries on June 11, a spokesman from Mark Strahl’s constituency office said the backbench MP had no statement on his meeting with the minister. Asked if that meant the meeting did not go well, the spokesman replied, “You’d have to speak to the minister about that.”
Crowder said the exclusion of Aboriginal voices from such an important issue flies in the face of the Prime Minister’s public statements and public face.
“The Prime Minister was engaged in a Crown/First Nations gathering back in January where people were optimistic that a more workable relationship was going to be forged, but so far we haven’t seen any evidence of it,” Crowder said. “I think they are again contributing to the notion that the Prime Minister says one thing and does something completely the opposite.”