Before I begin, let me clarify that Phil Fontaine is a nice person. That has nothing to do with his record as a politician, his life as an Indian Affairs administrator, his past as a survivor of residential schools. He is the sum of many parts.
People tend to get a bit misty, though, when a long timer like him takes the final bow, isn’t pushed but steps off the stage lightly under his own power, wanders off to other pursuits. They also tend to overlook some of the things that really bugged them when he was around. It may be human nature but to look only at the good and ignore other sides of the ledger is a missed opportunity. Thus, at least with the mainstream media, this is how it’s been with Phil Fontaine during his last days at the Assembly of First Nations.
White reporters, and they are the ones that matter here, measure Fontaine by different yardsticks than those used by Indigenous reporters. Mainstream reporters look at Fontaine and the AFN from a dominant society perspective. They can’t help it. That’s where they live. It determines their viewpoint.
Here’s an even bigger over-simplification. They measure Fontaine’s success or failure in terms of how well he was liked, understood by, managed to get along with those institutions and the people in their world. That’s the white world. That includes Parliament, government agencies, and federal and provincial politicians.
Indigenous reporters, certainly not all of them, should look at Fontaine’s list of accomplishments and measure them from other perspectives. How well did Fontaine champion their peoples’ causes, stand with them when it mattered most, hold true to his promises to them or to the principles he asked them to believe in? Because for the most part, the Canadian Parliament isn’t theirs, federal and provincial departments are antagonistic to their rights, and white politicians… Well, where to begin?
I noted a list of things that both Fontaine and the mainstream media checked off as his major successes. They include the Indian Residential Schools settlement, the national apology on residential schools by the Prime Minister, and the appointment of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. I also heard Fontaine on CBC Radio add to that list one of his pet projects: devolution of the Department of Indian Affairs. More on that last one a bit later. First, let’s examine those first three.
The Residential Schools settlement wasn’t Fontaine’s. It was a class action lawsuit brought by hundreds of survivors. Fontaine may be a survivor but to give him all the credit denies all of those poor bastards who decided against all odds and every nightmare to hire lawyers and take on the federal government and the churches. AFN and Fontaine may have helped, but the survivors fought for years almost all by themselves. The federal government and the churches cut an out-of-court settlement because they did not want to face those survivors in court. They had ripped apart the souls and families of Indigenous peoples across Canada, consigned them and their children’s children to living hells. The federal government and those churches cut their losses because the survivors held a mirror up to Canada, and Canadians were disgusted by what they saw.
Everything else flowed from that out-of-court settlement. The appointment of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission and Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s national apology were part of that out-of-court settlement. White reporters tend to overlook that and attribute it all to Fontaine and the AFN while ignoring the survivors and their often lonely fight for dignity, and for all of those who died along the way. Fontaine helped – but it was their victory. No one should ever take any of that away from them.
Now, about the last point: “devolution” of Indian Affairs.
First, just what does that mean? According to Fontaine, it was one of his big successes in Manitoba. It was something he hoped to export throughout the country. It meant at various times dismantling Indian Affairs, taking over Indian Affairs, Indians managing Indian Affairs. There were a lot of people who supported Fontaine and this plan. But, practically, stripped of rhetoric and hyperbole, what did Fontaine’s big success – and there may be a few forensic accountants who might disagree – really mean?
To some it meant getting rid of the white man lording over Indians. It meant putting people in charge for a change, people who really knew the communities and the problems. Enough with some know-nothing bureaucrat in Ottawa nickle-&-diming programs that might improve lives. Of course, that went beyond wishful thinking and deep into Twilight Zone territory.
Indian Affairs, the Indian Act, the reserve system – they’re all part of Canada’s system of internal federal colonies. We are not in a post-colonial Canada. Canada has colonies and Indians are colonized peoples. Canada may have imposed Canadian citizenship (no one asked), imposed enfranchisement (connotes stripping of rights to Indians), and recognized “existing Aboriginal rights” in the Canadian constitution (staples the Indian Act to the foreheads of each and every Indian in Canada). But that changes little in the lives of Indigenous peoples because the system remains firmly in place.
European kingdoms asserted colonial powers over Indigenous peoples on other continents, imposed their own versions of government, institutions, beliefs and displaced the Indigenous versions in order to “civilize” the savage often in the most uncivilized ways. But that was just an excuse, a way to rationalize brutal behaviour and minimize guilt. Stripped of the patriotic and heroic versions, also taught in Canadian history classes, it was actually all about land and resources. It might have been furs and lumber way back when, or oil and uranium today, but it’s still the same system at work.
It wasn’t as though Fontaine didn’t have examples when he came up with his idea of devolution of Indian Affairs. While in South Africa, if he had bothered to ask, he would have learned that both the British and the Boer tried to undermine the anti-apartheid leadership by offering to devolve the Department of Bantu Affairs. It was more efficient, and effective to create “Bantu homelands” such as Ciskei or Transkei, and hand over local administration to Blacks. Toward the end, they even proposed that “coloureds” elect their own MPs to sit in a separate “coloured Parliament.”
It didn’t work: not because a few would compromise their principles and support these initiatives. It didn’t work because the vast majority of those oppressed by apartheid laws understood that it was cosmetic change only, a set of lies and illusions. They understood that the whole system of laws and policies that was apartheid would remain, only now under Black or coloured management.
Essentially, that is what Fontaine was proposing in Manitoba, and hoped to achieve with the Department of Indian Affairs in Ottawa. What Fontaine proposed as “devolution” would not dismantle the Indian Act system. It would merely replace white management with a red one while keeping the system firmly intact.