Harper’s aboriginal firsts – by Kathryn Blaze Carlson (National Post – December 10, 2011)

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“To have successful resource development in this country,
you have to have strong and mutually beneficial relationships
with First Nations,” Mr. Powers said. “I think he wants a
New Dawn with as many aboriginal communities as he can.”

The New Dawn Agreements were signed by Ottawa, Newfoundland and Labrador and the Innu or Labrador, and not only clarified land claims but also gave the Innu Nation a 5% royalty stake in the Lower Churchill energy project.

Wayne Helgason saw tears in the eyes of Liberal prime ministers Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin when they spoke of his peoples’ plight. It was clear as day, he said, that improving the lives of aboriginals was more than political – for them, it was personal.

“When Chrétien and Martin spoke about these issues and confronted the deep challenges of First Nations people, you could tell it really meant something to them,” the vicepresident of the Aboriginal Council of Winnipeg said. “They developed a sense of trust because it was obvious they appreciated the severity of the circumstance.”

He sees no such watery compassion in Stephen Harper, a man whose rise to power nearly six years ago riled fears among critics of a predictably conservative, mean-spirited agenda aimed at assimilating Canada’s aboriginals. Back then, a group of First Nations leaders called on the Tory leader to clarify whether he agreed with the controversial writings of one his senior advisors, Tom Flanagan, who questioned the merit of aboriginal special rights.

Mr. Harper, as the story goes, was uncomfortably silent.

But cry as they might – make great overtures as they did – Mr. Chrétien and Mr. Martin inspired little change and likely feel a sour sense of unfinished business, Mr. Helgason said. He does not believe Mr. Harper’s action on the First Nations file has been particularly earth-shattering, but he concedes it has been respectably practical and pragmatic.

It has also been void of the malevolent surprises that many likely expected of a Conservative bogeyman.

“Sometimes the people you underestimate the most, perform the best,” Mr. Helgason said. “So we’ll see.”

In his tenure as prime minister, Mr. Harper has had many First Nations firsts, many of which were available to – but never acted on – by those who came before him: He was the first prime minister to stand up in the House of Commons and apologize for the Indian Residential Schools system.

He was the first to endorse the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. He was the first to extend the Canadian Human Rights Act to aboriginals living on reserves. He was the first to appoint an Innu Cabinet minister, and the first to have two aboriginal ministers in Cabinet at the same time. And he was the first sitting prime minister to be named an honourary chief.

That Mr. Harper was this summer named Chief Speaker of Alberta’s Blood Tribe, clad in smeared yellow face-paint and a feathered headdress, is no accident. Rather it is the result of a strategic, reasoned ap-proach to First Nations policy born not just from his own training and convictions, but also from the lessons inadvertently taught by those who came before him.

His proposals may not be novel – indeed many are borrowed from previous prime ministers who failed to move them. His actions may not be transformative, and he may not have some grandiose plan like Mr. Martin’s late-in-the-game $5-billion Kelowna Accord. But in manoeuvering within the bounds of reality, Mr. Harper is successfully chipping away at what many view as an intractable situation – making incremental changes where change can be reasonably expected.

“I think it’s fair to say he believes in the proverbial approach that politics is the art of the possible, not the impossible,” said Stockwell Day, a longtime senior Cabinet minister in Mr. Harper’s government.

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