When the Trudeau government shuffled their cabinet for the first time this year in January due to the retirement of Scott Brison, a series of events was set off like the whole SNC/PMO Scandal. But that wasn’t the only consequential change that was sent into motion by that shuffle. The moving of Jane Philpott out of the Indigenous Services portfolio was one that made waves in Ottawa and in Indigenous governments across the country. For many, it sent a signal and not a good one.
After three years of being told that the most important relationship to this government was the relationship with Indigenous peoples, this move seemed to flying in the face of that. Philpott performed extremely well in that ministry and had built strong relationships with Indigenous leaders. She got and it and understood the importance of her role and what she was doing. So her shuffling out was the first part of a two part change that left many Indigenous leaders and peoples worried and feeling slighted.
The second part of that change was who was named to replace Philpott; Seamus O’Regan. O’Regan is not a bad person and I believe he is a good hearted guy with his mind in the right place. But Philpott’s shoes were going to be huge to fill and putting a minister into this important portfolio after struggling at Veterans Affairs was going to make it that much harder.
To date, his performance in this role has been mixed, to be polite about it. But yesterday we saw something from this Minister that had me shaking my head a bit. O’Regan visited the community of Grassy Narrows in Treaty 3 territory. This government had promised the community a new health centre to deal with the impacts of the mercury poisoning and Minamata disease that this community has been dealing with for decades. That promise came in Fall of 2017. Still to date, the money for that facility hasn’t flowed and a date for construction hasn’t been set. And remember, it was protestors supporting Grassy Narrows who were subject of the Prime Ministers flippant “Thanks for your donation” comments a while back. That was the backdrop that awaited the Minister as he visited the community yesterday, complete with a media release saying that there would be a signing ceremony. So what happened? This did:
I have to admit I came away from seeing all of this with some mixed feelings. Part of me is glad that he finally actually went there to see this all for himself firsthand; lots of Ministers never do that and duck that responsibility, so there is something to be said for that. But part of me is extremely pissed off at what he did while there. Before going, his staff notify the local and national media that there will be signing ceremony, giving the indication that they had an agreement to sign off on. But it took no time to figure out that there was no agreement at all to sign, that the Minister was there but not to fulfill their promise and it made it all scream of a photo op. But the point that really sticks in my craw was tweeted about by Kenora Daily Miner and News reporter Erik Pindera, something that really makes me question the sincerity of the Ministers visit:
The community is asking for a health centre, they were promised a health centre and now the Minister is “offering” them something else? I would say that I should be shocked by this duplicity but I’m not, because this is so typical of Canadian governments over our history. When I worked for Romeo Saganash, he’d often tell the story about how under the James Bay Northern Quebec Agreement, their modern treaty, that there was a provision in it to provide every Cree community a “community centre”. But when the time would come to try to collect on that provision from the Federal government, they would get stonewalled. The Feds would basically say “well, what is a community centre?”. What’s included in a community centre? Is that a pool? A gym? A hall? And this would go on and on and on, stalling any efforts to actually make that promise come to fruition. So as you can imagine, many of those centres didn’t get built.
For a government who says that this is their most important relationship, you’d think that this practice of duplicity would be done and over. We are in 2019, right? Yet yesterday we saw Minister O’Regan waltz into the community, one that was ready to celebrate the delivery of this promise, complete with a community feast, only to find out that the Feds were moving the goalposts again. I want to say I’m shocked but my cynicism when it comes to these things won’t allow it.
And to make this worse, Chief Rudy Turtle’s other big request of the Federal government seems to be going unanswered; to put the funding for this project aside in a trust fund, before the Fall election, to ensure that the funding will actually be there after the election regardless of who wins. Given the recent history of Conservative governments regarding Indigenous peoples, this is a very reasonable request. Basically they are asking for the money up front, to be put aside. Chief Turtle asking for the most tangible proof the Federal government can give that this promise will be kept, one that won’t cost the Feds any more than it ever will. This request is a true test of the importance of this relationship, and still the Liberals seem to be completely unwilling to do it.
For me, I was very hopeful that this promise would be kept. This is an issue that hits a little closer to come with me because the communities of Grassy Narrows and Wabaseemong, the two communities directly affect by this mercury pollution, are a part of my greater community back home. I know people in these communities and I’ve seen the effects that this disease has had on the people who call them home.
This is a clear case as any for quick, decisive and fulsome Federal government action and when Minister O’Regan decided to go into that community knowing full well he didn’t have an agreement and wasn’t offering the health centre that Grassy Narrows was promised, he had to know what he was doing. I would argue that Minister Philpott wouldn’t have done the same thing, because she got it. I continue to hold out hope that the Federal government finally does the right thing here but I can’t look past what happened yesterday. Minister O’Regan and his office raised the hopes of that community who have been fighting for decades for what is right, and then dashed them again. That’s wrong on many levels and is beneath the dignity and the honour of the Crown that the Government of Canada is supposed to be upholding.