What does the Fraser Institute’s Tom Flanagan get right about reconciliation? Not very much!

Tom Flanagan and the Fraser Institute released “Promise and Performance: Recent Trends in Government Expenditures on Indigenous Peoples” that rates investments in Indigenous programs as a failure since they have not lifted Indigenous people up from their entrenched position at the bottom of the Canadian economy. Flanagan’s entire argument is presented in strictly economic terms as if the endemic problems within Indigenous child welfare, education, language and culture, health and justice (42 of the Truth and Reconciliation 94 Calls to Action) as a result of generations of systemic colonial structures of erasure are not relevant. All that First Nations have to do is embrace the resource extraction industry and open their territories to private enterprise to come in and build infrastructure – roads, pipelines, railways, power lines etc. – once the government “gets out of the way”!

In Flanagan’s view, this investment in infrastructure will solve all First Nation’s problems. To put his views in perspective, according to the 2016 census, 49% of the total First Nations population live on reserves which amounts to 481,776 according to the 2016 census out of a total Indigenous population of 1,673,785 broken down as follows:

  • First Nations = 977,230 (60%)
  • Métis = 587,545 (36%)
  • Inuit = 65,025 (4%)

So from Flanagan’s perspective, after ignoring the Métis and the Inuit (40% of the Indigenous population) his solutions are designed to address the economic problems of remote First Nations (70% of the total on-reserve population). That translates into 20.1% of the total Indigenous population who are indeed the most marginalized population in Canada. Slightly ahead of them are the more than 50% of First Nations who now live in cities where they experience a different reality of systemic racism and discrimination. Now add the lived experiences of the Métis and the Inuit to Flanagan’s myopic view. If you’re going to fix a problem, fix it for everybody not just where it suits your agenda.

The main reason that Indigenous people, all three groups – First Nations, Métis and Inuit – are as marginalized and as impoverished as they are is precisely because the governments of Canada, the provinces and to a lesser degree, the territories, have refused to compensate Indigenous people for the land – and the resources – that were stolen from them in the first place through broken treaties, expropriation and “projects for the common good of all Canadians”, all that is – except the Indigenous people. Indigenous leaders from coast-to-coast-to-coast have been fighting all levels of government for over 150 years to honour the treaties and where no treaties were ever signed as in BC, to recognize and honour Indigenous sovereignty.

The reality is that those First Nations that choose to work with the resource extraction industries have made a choice; those who choose not to, have also made a choice. The problem is that government and business respect the choice of the former and reject the choice of the latter.

The following facts – in BOLD RED – are primarily from the Executive Summary of Tom Flanagan’s article.

Flanagan Fact:

From the fiscal crisis of the mid-1980s to the end of Stephen Harper’s Conservative government in 2015, federal spending on Indigenous programs grew at a compound annual rate of 2.5% (constant dollars).

The truth:

Jean Chretien – yes, a liberal – imposed a 2% funding cap on annual increases to First Nations budgets in 1996 that lasted for 19 years until Prime Minister Trudeau reversed the policy in 2015. One of the biggest casualties – education – where an ever increasing number of Indigenous youth had less and less financial resources available to help them. As Prime Minister Trudeau said of the funding cap at the time, “It hasn’t kept up with the demographic realities of your communities, nor the actual costs of program delivery. As Lorraine Land, a partner at Olthuis, Kleer, Townshend, LLP has pointed out in “Taking a Second Look at those Attawawapiskat Numbers (Oct. 16, 2020)” that with the funding cap in place. “The Aboriginal population has been growing at a rate closer to four percent a year, so per capita support is falling behind.”

Flanagan Fact:

“The stated goal of reconciliation through increased spending on government programs is to attain economic equality between Indigenous people and other Canadians.”

The truth:

The Terms of Reference for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada identify seven goals:

a Acknowledge Residential School experiences, impacts and consequences; 
b Provide a holistic, culturally appropriate and safe setting for former students, their families and communities as they come forward to the Commission;
c Witness, support, promote and facilitate truth and reconciliation events at both the national and community levels; 
d Promote awareness and public education of Canadians about the IRS system and its impacts; 
e Identify sources and create as complete an historical record as possible of the IRS system and legacy. The record shall be preserved and made accessible to the public for future study and use;
fProduce a report with recommendations including the history, purpose. operation and supervision of the Indian Residential School (IRS) system, the effect and consequences of IRS (including systemic harms, intergenerational consequences and the impact on human dignity) and the ongoing legacy of the residential school
gSupport commemoration of former Residential School students and their families

There is no mention of “economic equality” in any of the stated goals although to be sure 35 of the 94 Calls to Action do directly or indirectly reference funding to reduce the “socio-economic” gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians due mainly to the chronic underfunding of programs and services – hence the 50% increase in program funding over the last 5 years by the liberal government.

Below are the 35 Calls to Action that speak directly to funding.

Call to Action ThemeCall to Action #
Child Welfare 1, 2
Education 8, 9, 10, 11, 62, 64, 65
Language and Culture 14, 15
Health 19, 20, 21, 23
Justice 29, 31, 34, 35, 36, 37, 40, 50
National Council of Reconciliation 54, 55
Youth Programs 66
Museums and Archives 67, 68, 69, 70
Missing Children and Burial Information 72
National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation 78
Commemoration 83
Sports and Reconciliation 88, 90

Reconciliation is primarily about closing the socio-economic gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians through a combination of program funding (Calls to Action 1-42: Child Welfare, Education, Language and Culture, Health and Justice) and, even more important, for the federal and provincial governments (the territories do much better) to finally – and formally – recognize Aboriginal rights and title and Indigenous legal traditions – not even mentioned by Flanagan.

Of the 10 Calls to Action that deal directly with Aboriginal Rights and Title and Indigenous laws and legal traditions 6 are not started, 3 are Stalled (including Business and Reconciliation and 1 (the UNDRIP Action Plan) has a three-year timeline. What does that say about government and business commitments to improving relationships when they continue to ignore the most fundamental Indigenous grievances.

Flanagan Fact:

“The most highly touted promise of Budget 2016 was to eliminate all long-term water advisories in Indian reserves by March 2021 at a cost of $1.8B. But we now know that deadline will not be met, even though the estimated expenditure has more than doubled.

The truth – Excerpts from “Growing the Middle Class: Government of Canada Budget 2016:

50% of Budget 2016 is dedicated to Education, Children and Training.

“Budget 2016 proposes to invest $8.4 billion over five years, beginning in 2016–17, to improve the socio-economic conditions of Indigenous peoples and their communities and bring about transformational change…The proposed investments in education, infrastructure, training and other programs will directly contribute to a better quality of life for Indigenous peoples and a stronger, more unified, and prosperous Canada”. Investments were as follows:

Budget 2016 CategoryBudget Amount over 5 years
Rebuilding the Relationship $136M
Education, Children and Training$4,220M
Social Infrastructure$1,219M
Green Infrastructure (includes Drinking Water)$2,242M
Other Initiatives$557M

Drinking Water feeds directly into Flanagan’s main argument that only investments in infrastructure – roads, pipelines, resource extraction, mining etc – not program spending – will ever close the economic gap between Indigenous people and the rest of Canada. Never mind the “socio” part of the “socio-economic” equation that in his view is irrelevant, wasteful and doesn’t produce results.

Flanagan Facts:

“Another high priority is Education, and federal budgets have promised additional hundreds of millions for school operating expenses and capital construction…

The truth:

The Parliamentary Budget Officer (PBO) in “Federal Spending on Primary and Secondary Education on First Nations Reserves. December 2016” stated the following:

  • Nationally, the total funding shortfall for education programming in all band-operated schools in 2012-13 was between $300 million and $595 million. PBO estimates this shortfall grew to between $336 million and $665 million in 2016-17.
  • In 2004-05, federal spending on elementary and secondary education programs (from kindergarten to grade 12) for students living on reserve was about $1.26 billion. This represented roughly 22 per cent of INAC’s budget and less than 1 per cent (0.59 per cent) of total federal spending. By 2014-15, program spending exceeded $1.72 billion, representing roughly 22 per cent of INACs budget and 0.61 per cent of total federal spending.
    • In other words, over a 10-year period INACs budget remained stable at 22% and as a total % of federal spending, it had basically remained the same (consistent with a funding cap)
  • PBO found evidence that INAC funding mechanisms:
    • do not adequately take into account important cost drivers for band-operated schools;
    • favour students living on reserves who attend provincial schools; and
    • put band-operated schools in remote northern regions at significant disadvantage.

“Per-student spending on First Nations education is already at least as high per-student in provincial systems

The truth:

The Parliamentary Budget Officer (PBO) in “Federal Spending on Primary and Secondary Education on First Nations Reserves. December 2016” stated the following: Adjusted for inflation, spending on educational programs increased at about 1 per cent a year during the 11-year period with relatively stable enrolment vs roughly 2 per cent a year for provincial spending on education after adjusting for inflation…in the context of declining enrolment. In other words, the per capita spending on Indigenous schools went down, the per capita spending in provincial schools went up.

The Cree educator Waubageshig has identified parental support as the crucial variable: If a majority of parents continue to low-ball education success and achievement, their children will too.”

The truth:

Many First Nation parents, as argued earlier here, do not have as strong a commitment to the value of a formal education as other parents elsewhere. Education, and by this I mean formal education, is and has been perceived through the lens of the residential school experience by a majority of First Nations for over 100 years. By now, everyone knows that experience produced severe emotional and physical pain throughout First Nation communities nationally, and it has produced enduring suspicion and anger towards formal education ever since. One major reason why many parents react either defensively or aggressively towards teachers and principals is part of the legacy of residential schools. Another is the role of Indian Agents and the authoritarian system they represented.”

First Nations Elementary-Secondary Education: A National Dilemma. Waubageshig

Context is everything and the quote lifted from Waubageshig’s article is misrepresented by what it leaves out – the reason the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was established in the first place – to address the legacy of the residential school system. Is it any wonder that Indigenous parents would tend to “low-ball” education? Look at what it did to them!

Seven generations of embedded colonial structures and repressive legal constraints such as The Indian Act were designed with the ultimate aim not only of the residential schools “destroying the Indian in the child” but of a much wider aim of disenfranchising and assimilating Indigenous people and getting rid of the “Indian” problem once and for all as per Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s 1969 White Paper. But surprise, surprise – we’re still here and still fighting for our collective rights.

The reality is that more and more Indigenous children and young adults are graduating from high schools and universities and colleges:

  • High School Graduations: 68% in 2016 up from 58% in 2006
  • College Graduations: 23% in 2016 up from 18.7% in 2006
  • University Graduations: 10.9% up from 7.7% in 2006
    • The above tables are based on Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC’s) Census Core Table 9A and INAC’s Census Core Table 6.05 as reported in the 2019 Indigenous Economic Progress Report

Flanagan Fact

Seventy percent of First Nations are located more than 50 kilometres from the nearest town or city

The truth:

First, as pointed out earlier, the actual number of First Nations who live on reserves is roughly 49% of the total First Nations population. Remote First Nations represent 70% of that First Nations total so in actual fact, 34.4% of the First Nations population live in remote communities not 70%. Statistics are effective analytical tools as long as they are not mischaracterized or distorted to give a false perception. The other reality is that more than 50% of First Nations now live in cities where to Flanagan’s point, there are “many and varied opportunities for economic progress”. All you have to do is overcome the embedded and widely acknowledged systemic racism and discrimination and get by with no “program funding” to address the persistent issues that will continue to plague Indigenous child welfare, education, language and culture, health and justice.

Flanagan Fact:

Of course, it is always possible to build more homes, but their useful life will be short without private ownership or rental. Government owned housing is a recipe for long-term failure because it does not create incentives for further investment and maintenance

The truth:

There are so many structural barriers in First Nations housing. “Private ownership or rental…or incentives for further investments and maintenance” will not address issues such as:

  • lack of national building code standards for housing on reserve
  • no national fire protection code that mandates fire safety standards or enforcement on reserves. All other jurisdictions in Canada including provinces, territories, and other federal jurisdictions (such as military bases, airports, and seaports) have established building and fire codes. 
  • overcrowding on reserves due to higher than average birthrates and multi-generational homes
  • Indian Act policy that prohibits home ownership on reserves

Flanagan Fact:

Government can overcome distance by fostering infrastructure, including roads, railways, pipelines, power lines, communication towers, and harbours. Governments may have to build some of these facilities, but private investors would build many of them if government would get out of the way. Better transportation and communication to enhance economic opportunities for remotely located Indigenous peoples is a more promising pathway out of poverty than increased government programming.

The truth:

Indigenous Watchdog has documented 244 “Current Problems and Issues” between Feb. 25, 2020 and March 31, 2021. These actions by various stakeholders – government, business, institutions, associations – get in the way of reconciliation. Among these are numerous issues with the governments of BC, Alberta, Manitoba, Ontario and Québec using the COVID-19 pandemic to shut down the supposedly constitutionally protected right of “Duty to Consult” and/or eliminating environmental monitoring on Indigenous lands to allow resource extraction industries free reign to continue business operations unencumbered by Indigenous opposition:

There are far too many actions to list here that reveal the truth behind how government and business really manage Indigenous relations – primarily on the premise that “THIS LAND IS OUR LAND and not yours. The federal and provincial governments can override treaties and settled land claims if they determine that a project is in the best interest of Canadians. In other words, Canadian law trumps Indigenous rights. That explains why “The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People” is so important. UNDRIP “constitutes the minimum standards for the survival, dignity and well-being of the indigenous peoples of the world.

Here’s a sampling:

  • Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers lobbied the federal and provincial government of Alberta to stop environmental monitoring and resume consultation with Indigenous communities despite COVID having shut those communities down (April 17, 2020: CBC)
  • Government of Canada refuses to honour the Marshall decision around a Moderate Living Fishery for the Sipekne’katik First Nation and Nova Scotia Mi’kmaw Chiefs (March 3, 2021)
  • The Government of Ontario appealed the Robinson-Huron and Robinson Superior Treaties Superior Court decision around Annuities claims that haven’t been raised since 1874 (Jan. 22, 2019: CBC)
  • Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in First Nation reported receiving a royalties cheque from the government for $65 in 2017. The Indian River accounted for 50 per cent of total placer gold mined in Yukon amounting to more than 350,000 crude ounces of gold (Jan, 26, 2021: The Narwhal)
  • Continued construction of Site C Dam did not address impacts on Treaty 8 territory and West Moberly’s treaty infringement claim (March 3, 2021: First People’s Law)
  • Innu Nation sues Hydro Québec for $4B for damages resulting from the Churchill Falls project that flooded 6,500 square kilometres of Innu territory without any compensation to the Innu (October 6, 2020: Canadian Press)
  • The Innu of Labrador and Québec and five Québec First Nations call for a halt to initiatives that would see Hydro Québec make billions of dollars in profits without consulting or compensating the First Nations on whose ancestral territories its electricity is produced and through which it will be transported (Dec. 3, 2020)
  • Critical Infrastructure Defence Act in Alberta issued in direct response to Wet’suwet’en Coastal GasLink protests (June 11, 2020: Huff Post)
  • Supreme Court of Canada refuses to hear Indigenous appeal of Trans Mountain Pipeline infringing on Indigenous un-ceded territory (July 2, 2020)
  • Giant Mine clean-up of toxic waste and environmental damage will cost $1B (Feb. 23, 2021: CBC)
  • After more than 50 years, Grassy Narrow is still dealing with government inaction on cleaning up mercury dumped in their waters that destroyed their commercial fishing industry
  • etc. etc. etc.

Flanagan Fact:

“Now that the duty to consult has been established by the courts, resource development means major advantages for First Nations, including jobs, job training, contract set asides, and cash payments to the community.”

The truth

As pointed our earlier, 9 provinces are opposed to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples primarily because they do not agree with the concept of Free, Prior and Informed Consent or the Duty to Consult since they falsely see both as an Indigenous veto over large natural resource projects.

A small sampling of current court cases and/or actions:

  • 6 provinces ask federal government to postpone the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People primarily due to its provisions for “Free Prior and Informed Consent” (Dec. 3, 2020 National Post)
  • 15 proposed mining projects in the Ring of Fire planned in northern Ontario over the next 10 years and few First Nations have been consulted (Feb. 18, 2021: WindSpeaker)
  • Impact Assessment Agency of Canada refused to extend consultation period beyond one-week to 5 First Nations who had capacity issues impacting their participation including: COVID, flooding and a mass evacuation (Dec. 17, 2020: CBC)
  • Canada and Ontario have been collaborating behind Attawapiskat, Fort Albany, and Neskantaga First Nations’ backs for the last year to agree on the terms of reference for the Regional Impact Assessment for the Ring of Fire in which First Nations have nothing but token involvement (April 5, 2021)
  • Lac Seul Band launched a suit against the Federal Government for breaching their fiduciary duty when they flooded 11,000 acres of reserve land in 1929 to advance a hydro-electric project. This project would see massive profits for the government, while leaving the First Nation of Lac Seul destitute and without reparations or adequate compensation for the devastation of their land and lost opportunity. 90 years later, Lac Seul Band is still fighting (Oct. 28, 2020: Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs)
  • Governments of Canada and Alberta appealed a lower court decision granting Beaver Lake First Nation a partial advanced cost order allowing them to continue their 10-year court case over their treaty rights (Jan. 22, 2021)
  • The six Wolastoqey Communities have taken the governments of Canada and New Brunswick to court over their failure to honour the Peace and Friendship Treaties and have carved up the land and given it to private landowners, and kept for themselves all benefits in the form of taxes, royalties, leases and fees (Oct, 5, 2020: NationTalk)
  • Government of Ontario passes Bill 197 “The COVID-19 Economic Recovery Act, 2019“, in 13 days with no consultation that significantly weakens environmental protections and impacts inherent Aboriginal and treaty rights

Another fact according to a survey conducted by Indigenous Works: 85% of companies surveyed make up “The Disengaged Majority” defined as those who “have not prioritized Indigenous engagement in any way”.

Flanagan Fact

The government of British Columbia has set a good example with its sharing of resource revenues for the Coastal GasLink pipeline as well as various forestry projects.

The truth:

  • Some of the Benefit Agreements signed between First Nations and Coastal GasLink had provisions to discourage any protests by First Nation members “from hindering BC pipeline project (Aug. 9, 2019: CBC)
  • An international coalition of more than 200 conservation, recreation and wildlife groups as well as local elected officials, businesses and Tribes and First Nations oppose a pending mining permit by Imperial Metals in the headwaters of the Skagit River. Imperial was responsible for the infamous Mount Polley mine disaster of 2014, which spilled more than 24 million cubic meters of wastewater laden with arsenic, lead, selenium and copper into the Fraser River watershed, one of the biggest environmental disasters in Canadian history. No charges or fines levied. (Jan. 13, 2021: NationTalk)
  • The BC Government made significant changes to forest policies and legislation, such as Bill 21 (Forest and Range Practices Amendment Act, 2019) and Bill 22 (Forest Amendment Act, 2019), with no input from First Nations. The BC Forest Strategy “New Future for Old Forests” ignores the Guiding Principles and Goals highlighted by the “BC First Nations Forest Strategy“– developed in collaboration with the BC Government (Nov. 16, 2020: NationTalk)
  • BC’s Environmental Assessment Office has issued a non-compliance after Coastal GasLink cleared pipeline Right of Way through hundreds of wetlands without environmental fieldwork (July 24, 2020)
  • Coastal GasLink called in the RCMP to remove a group of Wet’suwet’en women and community members who are holding ceremony protecting the Wedzin Kwa, the river that sustains and gives life to their Nation, from test drilling at a proposed drill site for Coastal GasLink’s pipeline. (Oct. 15, 2020, Union of BC Indian Chiefs)

First Nations, Second Thoughts

21 years ago Tom Flanagan published an article “First Nations, Second Thoughts” that laid out his vision of where Indigenous policy was taking Canada. He was as wrong then as he is now.

Canada will be redefined as a multinational state embracing an archipelago of Aboriginal nations that own a third of Canada’s land mass, are immune from federal and provincial taxation, are supported by transfer payments from citizens who do pay taxes, are able to opt out of federal and provincial legislation and engage in ‘nation-to-nation’ diplomacy with whatever is left of Canada.” First Nations, Second Thoughts, Tom Flanagan

First, let’s begin with the facts – also know as the truth, starting with the current reality – 21 years after he wrote his prediction about where government policy was leading the country:

  • Indigenous people do not own a third of Canada’s land mass, Canada and the provinces claim 100%
    • Aboriginal Rights and Title (i.e. Land Claims) are the fundamental stumbling block impeding meaningful reconciliation precisely because the federal and provincial governments refuse to recognize Indigenous claims or “Nation-to-Nation” sovereignty and what that means, especially to the ownership of the land and the economic benefits that accrue from that position. No wonder 9 of the provinces and territories are opposed to UNDRIP, 3 support UNDRIP (including the federal government) but only under Canadian law
      • No fewer than nine UNDRIP articles (out of 46) concern rights that relate to Indigenous people’s lands, waters, territories or resources (Centre for International Governance Innovation)
      • The biggest opposition to UNDRIP by conservatives is the requirement for “Free, Prior and Informed Consent” and the “Duty to Consult”. Their position is “THIS LAND IS OUR LAND”; not yours” – even if we (colonial powers) stole it, broke treaties that were meant to protect our relationship to our land, and rape and pillage it in the name of “economic progress”. For conservatives, the economy “trumps” human rights!
  • Aboriginal nations are immune from federal and provincial taxation
    • Only First Nations people registered under the Indian Act qualify for a limited range of tax exemptions
    • The Indian Act does not apply to any Métis (36% of the Indigenous population in Canada) nor the Inuit (4%)
    • The income tax provision only applies to income earned by a First Nations person living on a reserve
    • Any First Nations person living off-reserve (more than 50% according to the 2016 census) is subject to all federal and provincial income taxes
  • are supported by transfer payments from citizens who do pay taxes
    • All Canadians are supported by transfer payments form the federal government to the provincial governments
    • First Nations peoples receive significantly less government funding for programs and services per capita ($8,400) when compared with Canadians who receive $18,178 per capita in federal, provincial and municipal spending. AFN National Chief Perry Bellegarde “Honouring the Promises: 2019 Federal Election Priorities for First Nations and Canada
  • are able to opt out of federal and provincial legislation
    • If Aboriginal nations would be exempt for from federal and provincial legislation why are the courts being overrun by Indigenous lawsuits against specific federal and provincial legislation that violate their constitutionally protected rights:
      • Alberta’s omnibus Bill 22 includes amendments that would make the Alberta Energy Regulator (AER) the final decision maker about impacts to Treaty rights and the cumulative effects of development in Treaty 8 Traditional Territory. (July 20, 2020)
      • Ongoing refusal of federal government to honour the Micmac Moderate Living” fIshery based on the Supreme Court Marshall decision from 1999 (March 3, 2021)
      • Bill 22 “Mental Health Amendment Act” and Bill 17 “Clean Energy Amendment Act” passed in BC with no Indigenous consultation (Nov. 26, 2020: First Nations Leadership Council)
      • Bill 76, “United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People” is stalled in Ontario legislature (June 11, 2020)
      • Five First Nations in northern Ontario are fighting the government of Ontario and Canada over their refusal to accommodate their requests for consultation postponement due to COVID and evacuations due to flooding (Dec. 17, 2020: CBC)

So what do we have: four statements framed as representative of an Indigenous reality that is as far removed from the truth as other flag-bearers from a conservative, right-wing media as represented by the likes of Tom Flanagan, Conrad Black and The Montreal Economic Institute, all three of whom have released their views of Indigenous relations recently.

More to come in a future blog post.

Special thanks to Conrad Black for highlighting “First Nations, Second Thoughts” in his diatribe against Indigenous people in the National Post “The truth about truth and reconciliation” Mar. 20, 2021.

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