There is a clear disconnect between much of what the Harper Government does and much of what the Harper Government says or bothers to acknowledge publicly.
For four weeks Canada and the world have watched Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence and Prime Minister Stephen Harper launch opposing campaigns of sacrifice.
Chief Spence has given up food, subsisting on tea and water in an effort to wrench a face-to-face meeting with the man who is — by his own statements — committed to “improving relationships and strong partnerships between Canada and First Nations,” and to “the spirit of ongoing dialogue” between them.
The Prime Minister, ever inconsistent, has matched Chief Spence’s sacrifice of food by forgoing any attempt to offer meaningful comment. Instead, he has employed an all too familiar tactic: ignore opposing opinion and negative development, and wait for the public attention span to move on to something else.
Public attention, of course, didn’t move on. A rare development, which prompted the Prime Minister to do the unthinkable and respond, a full 25 days after Chief Spence’s very public protest began on December 11th.
In a statement which you can read here, the Prime Minister’s Office announced the upcoming January 11th meeting between Harper, Aboriginal Affairs Minister Duncan, and First Nations leaders including Chief Spence. The statement contains no mention of Spence, her hunger-strike, or the concerns of so many other protest groups, including the well publicized #IdleNoMore movement.
The statement from the Prime Ministers Office is 254 words long, and only 16 of those words addressed the feeling behind the First Nations protests: “…there is more that must be done to improve outcomes for First Nations communities across Canada.”
The rest is a laundry list of deflection that touts prior government ‘commitment to progress’ and future government ‘commitment to a strengthened relationship.’
A few days after that statement was released, news of a conveniently leaked government audit of Chief Spence’s Attawapiskat council broke. The audit has levied charges of a lack of due diligence in the councils handling of federal funds.
These are serious findings that demand a serious investigation, but the timing of the report is revealing. That this is the format in which the government offers official reference to Chief Spence and the Attawapiskat band in name, rather than in the announcement that Prime Minister Harper will meet with her, should not be overlooked.
Perhaps the Attawapiskat band was negligent in its record-keeping of federal funds. Perhaps Chief Spence has a flair for the dramatic in waging her hunger strike from Victoria Island on the Ottawa River. But perhaps the Prime Minister of Canada has been negligent in his silence on an issue, which has dominated the national discourse of his country for much of the last three weeks. Perhaps the Prime Minister has been negligent in the dismissive way he has handled a request to be heard and engage in dialogue.
Should we be surprised? Should we expect anything different? Anything more? Perhaps not.
This is a Prime Minister who has refused to attend first ministers meetings with the nations 13 Premiers, even at their request. He has reneged on his pledge for fixed election dates and has prorogued Parliament twice — first to sidestep the formation of a coalition government that would have ended his tenure as Prime Minister, and then to avoid criticism of the Afghanistan detainee scandal during the Vancouver Olympics. More recently, he has refused to put the highly controversial Foreign Investment Promotion and Protection Agreement with China to the Canadian public, claiming he will sign it in secret instead.
There is a pattern to the way Prime Minister Harper handles criticism and contentious issues, and it relies far too heavily on avoidance and obfuscation.
Chief Theresa Spence, her alleged melodramatics, and the lack of due diligence in the Attawapiskat council record keeping are not the largest problems in this equation. They do not deserve the level of scorn and righteous fury that they have received. If they are problems at all, they are ones in need of a solution — not silence, avoidance, and the leaking of scathing reports to the press.