Masthead graphic based on a painting by Gudrun Thriemer.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

"Assembly of First Nations calls for a National Day of Action," June 25, 2007.

In the Oxford English Dictionary, definitions and historical citations of the word “race” take up more than a page and a half.

First we have those that refer to running or hurrying. These harken back to the dawn of human times and primeval activities which we share with animals. We get the word from Old Norwegian, Old Swedish, and Old English words that mean the same thing.

Skimming past a few technical or even archaic meanings we come eventually to “a group of persons, animals, or plants, connected by common descent or origin.” These go on for about two and a half columns. Some of the citations refer to the race of Satan or the race of Christ. The Olympian gods are referred to as the heavenly race.

Samuel Johnson found that when applied to wine, the word race “in its primitive sense, means the flavour of the soil.” There are references to the British race, the French and the German race and, of course, the human race.

In all the slew of nuances and documentary evidence of usage the OED gives us, the earliest meaning “a group or class of persons, animals or things, having some common feature or features” comes from the Scottish poet William Dunbar some time between 1500 and 1520. The second earliest comes from the Privy Council in 1547. Mallory didn't use it. Chaucer didn't use it. The seafaring Anglo-Saxons didn't use it.

Is it a coincidence that the origins for this usage are obscure and that in English it doesn't occur until after 1492?

Or was race a concept that Europeans needed to manage the flood of change after they stumbled onto new continents, a new hemisphere, and hosts of new peoples with their languages, foods, customs, histories and separate destinies?

For most of the time since, imperialism has been the driving energy of globalization. Europe exported and imposed many of its values an institutions as well as its diseases and shortcomings through by means of military conquest, commerce, Christian evangelization, technological innovation, and above all through its people.

This week, the Assembly of First Nations has called for a National Day of Action on June 29—four days from now.

The AFN document identifies six large areas of concern: land claims, drinking water, protection of women and children, Canada's position on the United Nations Draft Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the decline in funding for basic services, the Kelowna Accord.

Aboriginal affairs may not seem like an obvious case of media failure—at least not this week. The summer solstice has been Canada's National Aboriginal Day since 1996 when the Governor General of the time, Roméo LeBlanc, declared it to be so.

This year the day followed hard on the heels of an announcement that the long-running Ipperwash Inquiry had issued its report (May 31, 2007).

A few weeks later, in a well publicized press conference with Fontaine and Indian Affairs Minister Jim Prentice at his side, Stephen Harper announced a promise to spend $250 million per year for 10 years to accelerate the settlement of land claims.

Actually, Harper said that his “complete package of reforms” which will not be introduced to Parliament until the fall session, will “revolutionize the claims-resolution process.”

AFN National Chief Phil Fontaine called it “a historic announcement, and a day to applaud the federal government.”

Land claims are certainly a major problem for both Canada and First Nations, but the national media rarely cover them except in cases of “historic” announcements and outrageous fiascos—like the chronic water emergency in the community of Kashechewan.

But Kashechewan is rarely reporeted as the tip of an iceberg. Still, in 2005 a consultant's report found that of the operators running water treatment plants on Ontario reserves, only 60 of the 134 reserves have been provided personal training to do the job.

In 2006, Minister Prentice reported progress and outlined a new water quality program for 21 communities. The AFN comments that “regulation without investment only serves to victimize our people further.”

The CBC story at the time noted that those 21 communities were at the top of the list because in many cases their water was undrinkable. "But, Prentice admits there are another 170 other reserve water systems that also pose health risks."

The AFN's conclusion on drinking water: "no real action."

Protection of indigenous women and children is rarely addressed with the kind of enthusiasm that accompanies ribbon cutting and the PM's press conferences. Back in a World Report on institutionalized conflicting government interest, I described

“Native women living on reserves [who] have fewer rights than women in most countries.... First Nations women are often forced to leave their homes, and even their communities, if their marriages fail.

“This is not because of some quaint aboriginal custom, but because provincial laws govern how matrimonial property is divided when death or marital separation occur. Reserves, however, are governed by the federal Indian Act, which means that provincial community property laws do not apply. And the Indian Act has no provisions for equal division of property and other assets when a marriage ends on a reserve.”

The AFN comments,

“A process to deal with Matrimonial Real Property was announced and another report tabled with very good recommendations. Here again the Minister seems to be ignoring the recommendations that call for real change and investment and again opting to legislate a ‘quick fix’. This won’t work. This doesn’t address the problem and this does nothing to serve the interests of First Nations women and children.”

Canada's position on the United Nations Draft Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is probably the most surprising of the AFN's six points.

United Nations Draft Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples: Canada was showing leadership until the new Conservative government reversed direction and is actively trying to kill this declaration of fundamental human rights.

The position of the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development is that provisions of the existing text are quote “vague and ambiguous, leaving it open to different, and possibly competing, interpretations.”
The Draft Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples was prepared in consultation with indigenous organisations and completed in 1993.

Fourteen years later, governments, such as those of the United States, the United Kingdom, Japan and some Latin American countries, have demanded based on concerns about concepts like collective rights, territorial autonomy, and rights to natural resources. (Cevallos Distant goal Aug 16 05)

The effect of capped funding for Aboriginal communities is suggested by this discrepancy. Grand Chief Ron Evans of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs pointed out at a press conference in April that “the UN [Human Development] index tells us that Canada ranks in the top 10, but First Nations in Canada rank 63rd” on a measure that includes life expectancy, literacy, education, and standard of living.

The UN regularly calls Canada on our relation to the indigenous people here. The Kelowna Accord, negotiated in the dying days of the Martin government was intended to help remedy a shameful inequality. But again in the words of the Assembly of First Nations, the new Conservative government “killed the Kelowna Accord and said it would come up with its plan. There is no plan and there is no progress” (AFN).

When the first Conservative budget was announced, the Globe and Mail said of this well-reported change in direction quote “Native spending falls millions short of pact.” Actually the shortfall was closer to $350 millions, i.e., hundreds of millions short.

Overall, AFN concluded that the new government was “missing in action.” That conclusion, posted before Harper's promise on land claims may now appear a little too harsh. But while the government has made a nice promise about land claims, the criticisms on drinking water, protection of women and children, Canada's position on the Rights Declaration, the decline in funding for basic services, and the Kelowna Accord still appear fair and reasonable. Hold the champagne.

The media, collectively, are doing a bit better. Questions are still raised about the Kelowna Accord, land claims and drinking water. Aboriginal women and children are actually the focus of a number of political, human rights, education, health and safety concerns. More on that in the months to come on World Report. Ditto Canada's bizarre position on the UN Indigenous Rights Declaration.

Over the past few weeks, the CBC has creates the impression that it's got the picture.

The Corporation held a gathering of journalists in Regina on June 14, 2007 to discuss reporting on aboriginal affairs.

A week later, National Aboriginal Day was the occasion for a new website at, a special program featuring aboriginal filmakers, and regular daily coverage of events—which should be standard by now, but isn't.

That's all better than the other national media over the last three or four weeks, but what does it mean? As we know all too well, the CBC is prone to obsess for awhile and then tune out altogether.

For instance, what is your most recent information about Darfur? How are the peace talks going in Lebanon? Somalia?

Venezuela has been hopping lately. More on those stories and what media failure means for us here in the roots.

As with Harper's promised “revolution” in the handling of land claims, time will tell.

As for us at KCR, World Report won the 2007 Award for Best Newscast from the National Campus/Community Radio Association for Best Newscast.

Heartfelt thanks to the staff and volunteers at Kootenay Coop Radio who help make this broadcast possible. And thanks to the NCRA for being there. There's a link to the winning broadcasts at the World Report blog posting of the text for this piece.
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