A little retribution.
Two "historic" agreements that will be the barometer of the Fontaine administration's success over the last three years--the plan to compensate residential school survivors and the 10-year Kelowna agreement, a $5 billion plan to battle poverty on reserve--are going nowhere. Those agreements were the fruit of a very close partnership between the Assembly of First Nations and the dearly departed Liberal government headed by former prime minister Paul Martin. But so far, under the Conservative Party of Canada government, those two breakthrough developments have turned out to be neither "agreements" nor "historic."
We're told that something's up. Ottawa insiders know that political support is always a game of give and take or scratch and itch. When Team Martin closed the deal on its palace putsch of long-serving Liberal leader (and three-term prime minister) Jean Chretien, things got bloody. Liberals had to take sides, knowing they'd pay for any misplaced loyalties. Former Indian Affairs minister Robert Nault was seen as a Chretien guy. He had ticked off the chiefs with his First Nations governance act. He had to go and go he did.
And that was part of a deal, Ottawa sources say. If Fontaine praised the Liberals and asked tough questions of the Conservative Party and subtly helped Martin hold onto power, the reward would come in the form of a couple of historic accomplishments that would, in turn, secure Fontaine's re-election, and even his place in history. That's what was going on right in plain view: there is absolutely no question about it in the minds of those who ply their trade under the Peace Tower gargoyles.
So Nault was thrown over the side and suddenly Martin was saying the most enlightened sounding things about "Indian policy" that anybody had ever heard anywhere. It was almost as if he'd been briefed on what to say by somebody on the national chief's own staff.
Things appeared to be moving forward with unprecedented haste. The deal to compensate residential school survivors was hammered out months earlier than expected, just in time for the beginning of the federal election campaign. The fall of the Martin minority government was delayed a few days for the Kelowna first ministers' meeting, which saw hopes raised as they never were before.
But the wrong team won the election and that deal now lies in tatters. Now, according to the unwritten rules of the Ottawa game, Mr. Fontaine must pay for backing the wrong horse. Unfortunately, so must Aboriginal peoples.
Without the residential school compensation or the Kelowna billions to show to the chiefs in Vancouver this summer, Fontaine's re-election is no longer inevitable. Although no serious contender has yet emerged, anger is building and there are those who will seek to exploit it. That could mean trouble for the national chief.
The big question is whether or not it is moral for the new federal government to take out its partisan anger on Fontaine and, by extension, on the lives of people who would have benefited from the Kelowna and the residential schools accords. We say it is not.
As to the lesser questions of whether Team Fontaine made a horrible miscalculation in putting themselves, and others, into this predicament and should therefore be held accountable for their actions, that will be up to the chiefs--and the chiefs only--this July.
But for Stephen Harper's government to use the anger generated by dashed hopes against someone seen as a political enemy is cruel and murderously irresponsible. God would not bless a Canada that did something like that. Death by politics is still death. And too many people will die too soon in tragic, supposedly un-Canadian circumstances, if all the talk about addressing the poverty gap and improving the quality of life for Aboriginal people turns out to be a bureaucratic fiction.
The game supposedly has changed in Ottawa. Phil Fontaine's unique talents as a politician and deal-maker, and they are considerable, have gotten us to this point. If the Conservative government is going to back down from what looked like the beginning of the end of Canada's shameful, racist, colonial past, it needs a better reason than political retribution.