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Chalifoux educates fellow senators with horror stories.

When the federal government allows political organizations to administer social programs, politics and patronage distort the system and erode the quality of the service. So says Metis Senator Thelma Chalifoux, and she hopes a new study she is pushing for will help convince government to change its funding strategies.

It's an issue that's dear to Chalifoux's heart. She has believed for a long time that tribal councils, band councils and national organizations like the Assembly of First Nations should be funded so they can do their political jobs and nothing more. She calls them lobby groups and believes they have a purpose, but that purpose doesn't include job training, social services or other similar functions. Those are basic needs of people who frequently are in desperate circumstances and they should not have to deal with the possibility of losing such services just because they are on a politician's bad side.

"You don't fund the NDP to provide programs in their constituencies so why are you funding Aboriginal political organizations? It doesn't make any sense," said Chalifoux while on a tour of Aboriginal service agencies in and around Edmonton's inner city with her Senate colleagues on Aug. 24.

While the group moved from the social service agency the Ben Calf Robe Society to the inner city Crystal Kids drop-in centre to the Canadian Native Friendship Centre to Slate Personnel, an employment agency owned by a Metis woman, to the Edmonton Native Seniors Centre, which also houses the Edmonton Native Veterans. Association, the same message came. The system needs an overhaul.

Shortly after MPs and Senators return to Ottawa on Sept. 17 for the fall session of Parliament, Chalifoux, chair of the Senate's standing committee on Aboriginal people, will approach the Senate's Board of Internal Economy to get funding approval for a three-year study of the problems faced by urban Aboriginal people. She said she expects to get the board's approval to proceed.

The study, called "An Action Plan for Change," will look at youth issues and then women's and seniors' issues. As a well-connected and well-respected member of the Metis community, Chalifoux is ideally suited to shake things up and that certainly appears to be what she has in mind.

The work has already begun, unofficially. Even before they broke from the Liberal Party summer caucus to do a little committee spadework, the members had already been put to work.

"I told all the committee members, I said, 'On your own hook--because we don't have any budget for it--I'd like you to go into your own communities and find out exactly what the Aboriginal agencies are doing and find out what the gaps are.' I do not want any bureaucrat developing the agenda," Chalifoux said. "The Aboriginal agencies will assist us in developing the agenda. That's what this is all about."

Later in Chalifoux's office in St. Albert, she drove home her message.

"Forget about the NDP. What would happen if funding flowed through this constituency office?" she asked Windspeaker.

"It would turn into patronage heaven with only Liberal supporters having a chance," was the reply.

"Exactly," she replied. "And that's exactly what you hear from Aboriginal people trying to access these programs. 'So-and-so didn't like me, I can't get any funding."

That statement won't endear her to Aboriginal politicians who have been known to make creative use of program dollars to make ends meet and have come to enjoy the power and influence the control over the program money gives them. Chalifoux tried to soften the blow.

"All the Aboriginal organizations are vital to the survival of the nations in the negotiations and everything," she said. "But are they doing the best job in providing programming? No, they're not."

The conclusion she has reached by talking to program providers is the government has fired and missed when it comes to searching for the best way to serve the people and it's well past time to reload and try again. But she believes the government was trying to be respectful when it handed over control of so many budgets.

"The government's in a difficult situation. They're damned if they do and they're damned if they don't. When the government was controlling the programming dollars, then the Aboriginal organizations said, 'We can do a better job.' The government of the day was convinced of that, so they started giving the programming dollars to the organizations. I'm sure the government bureaucrats thought, well if we give [the money] to the political organizations, it's going to be easier for us, so they can handle it," she said.

Asked if she saw the blurred line between programs and politics to be the worst problem for Aboriginal people, she said, "No."

"What I've seen, and I've seen it for 35 years, is that the budget of Indian Affairs has, only five cents out of every dollar gets to the reserve. It wasn't that long ago, Enoch [First Nation in Alberta] had hired a fellow for three months for housing for the 'reserve. That was when they had, I forget how much ... $1.8 million for housing. When he broke it down on what Enoch would qualify for, they qualified for $8,000. This is what the problem is," she said. "With the amount of money Indian Affairs is given every year, if every man, woman and child on reserve got it divided equally, they would get $50,000 or something. But by the time it gets down to the reserve, out of that budget comes everybody's salary from the deputy minister right on down. The minister's salary doesn't come out of that because he's an MP. So he gets his MP's salary."

Chalifoux was with the Company of Young Canadians when that Liberal group did a study in 1973 on that issue.

"And there was another study just a few years ago," said the Senator, "and it hasn't changed a bit. And you can print that and let them deny it. Let them prove me wrong.

There's been a lot of talk in the press about Prime Minister Jean Chretien's 'personal agenda' and its emphasis on Aboriginal issues. Chalifoux said her study will help him achieve the goal of improving conditions for Aboriginal people, but only because the study will help gather more useful information that can be used-to make decisions.

"His agenda is the same as all of us," she explained. "He doesn't have a 'personal agenda' because that man listens to all of us and his agenda comes out of what we all say. Aboriginal issues, yes, are top priority. But how do we deal with them? This is why this study that I'm proposing to happen for urban Aboriginal people is so important. I told them that less than 10 per cent of Aboriginal people live on reserves, or Metis settlements in Alberta. The majority of us live in the urban areas. We are the most discriminated race of people in the urban centres. More so than any other ethnic people. We have to make sure the government knows the issues."

During the tour, several Senators admitted that most people in Ottawa have little understanding of Aboriginal issues. Chalifoux knows that and she sees her job to be to remedy that situation by educating her colleagues whenever she can. She collects anecdotes arid horror stories about the unique troubles her people run into when they come in contact with bureaucracies designed with middle class Canadians of European ancestry in mind. Her hope, it appears, is to shock decision makers into finally understanding what it's like to be Native or Metis or Inuit in Canada.

"A lot of our people, English is not their first language. Cree, Ojibway, wherever they come from is their first language," she said. "Yet when they come into the city, they cannot take English as a second language because they don't have a landed immigrant certificate. I didn't realize that until a few months ago when I checked into it. That means that our people can't get any language training. There's computers being put into the isolated settlements. Wonderful! Except the majority of people in the isolated settlements speak Cree."

One of the highlights of the tour was the lunch stop. The five Senators, several with their spouses in tow, lined up for soup and bannock in the soup kitchen. at the friendship centre.

It was another lesson in the Senators' Aboriginal education.

"Exactly. We discussed that with the friendship centre and I thought that it would be really good for them to see exactly what happens in a soup kitchen. They were so impressed. We educated those guys so well on Friday. And they really enjoyed it," Chalifoux said.
COPYRIGHT 2001 Aboriginal Multi-Media Society of Alberta (AMMSA)
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Copyright 2001 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Canadian politician Thelma Chalifoux
Author:Barnsley, Paul
Publication:Wind Speaker
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Sep 1, 2001
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