The AFN and the PM: Retiring the missionaries – by Robin V. Sears (Toronto Star – April 21, 2013)

The Toronto Star has the largest circulation in Canada. The paper has an enormous impact on federal and Ontario politics as well as shaping public opinion.

Robin V. Sears is a principal of the Earnscliffe Strategy Group. [email protected]

Shawn Atleo and Stephen Harper are striving to move beyond Canada’s dreary tradition of paternalism toward aboriginal peoples.

That Canada’s enormous aboriginal bureaucracy has failed to deliver despite dispensing billions of dollars a year for decades is not hard to explain — their values and methods differ little from their forebears of two centuries earlier.

Just as Anglican and Catholic missionaries used a combination of carrot and stick to replace local languages and culture with English and Victorian values, so today’s zealous bureaucrats use grants, project funding — and the threat of their withdrawal — to reward “good Indians” and punish the recalcitrant in defence of a classic clientist welfare agenda.

The department changes its name every decade or so, in the apparent belief that new paint will disguise the ancient, rigid superstructure it conceals. No more responsible for “Indian Affairs,” the newest packaging is about aboriginal peoples and northern development. To its friends and enemies it is always simply, “The Department.”

Money has replaced the threat of force as the state’s preferred means of ensuring compliance. Although the department selectively leaks the abuse of its funds by some First Nations communities as a caution to those tempted to “get off the reserve” as it were — it rarely offers a view of its own internal use of taxpayers’ funds.

It would surely horrify the diminishing and battered cadre of Reform party true believers to know that their government has overseen a rapid growth in the hundreds of millions of dollars that the department spends on outside consultants. The most recent figure is $350 million a year and growing rapidly.

Once a decade or so, a brave or naive new minister is handed the mess that is Canada’s First Nations policy, and he or she decides to take on the department. They announce measures that will deliver real change in health, education and economic possibility on reserve and among Canada’s burgeoning urban aboriginal communities. What follows is like a poorly scripted episode of Yes, Minister, as the department’s enormous ranks of mid-level bureaucrats adopt their best passive-aggressive postures, smiling and nodding at the innocent politician’s stern admonitions.

The arrival of a seasoned old-hand in the form of Bernard Valcourt is a token not only of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s frustration with the department’s intransigence, but also of his recognition that he must break it if he is not to wear the political cost of a complete breakdown in relations between the Crown and Canada’s First Nations. Incredibly, he has taken the step of dressing down both the former minister and his deputy in front of outsiders for their collective failure to implement policies he has agreed to and had directed them to execute.

Valcourt has already sent a frisson through the department’s most hardcore gatekeepers of Canada’s last 19th-century welfare bureaucracy. His early declarations, both to the First Nations leadership and to his officials, have been refreshing. In effect: “I am here to deliver the changes that the prime minister has promised for Canada’s aboriginal peoples and I do not intend to fail.” His ability to deliver, however, will be determined by events and decisions outside the department’s, the government’s and his control.

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