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'Maybe I'm ruffling some feathers. If I am, then maybe it's time'
Ron Corbett, The Ottawa Citizen
Dimanche 29 juillet 2007


Patrick Brazeau was born in Maniwaki, within rock-throwing distance of the Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg reserve. His grandmother was born on the reserve, a full-status Algonquin Indian who fell in love with a non-native, got married and had to leave.

That was the way things once worked in Canada. Native women who married non-natives lost their government status and had to leave the reserve. They were no longer Indian.

Then in 1985 the federal government passed Bill C-31, an amendment to the Indian Act that gave Indian status back to aboriginal women like Mr. Brazeau's grandmother. The bill also applied to their families. So it came to be, at the age of 11, that Patrick Brazeau became an Algonquin Indian.


Patrick Brazeau on Highway 107, near Maniwaki - where he grew up - and the Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg reserve that his grandmother had to leave when she married a non-native man.
Julie Oliver, The Ottawa Citizen
At the time, he lived upstairs from his father's grocery in Maniwaki - Dépanneur Brazeau - and he can't remember his life changing all that much. His grandmother was long dead, his father had no interest in living on the reserve and his days unfolded pretty much as they had before.

He played hockey. Took martial arts classes. Graduated high school. He didn't know what to do with his life, so he took odd jobs, enlisted in the naval reserves. Then, at the age of 20, he went back to school, first at a community college in Gatineau, then to the University of Ottawa, where he enrolled in the social sciences program.

That summer he took a job with the Congress of Aboriginal People (CAP), an organization that was founded 36 years ago and which represents native Canadians living off-reserve. It was his first exposure to aboriginal politics and he revelled in it.

Perhaps he had an intuitive gift for the job. After all, here was a man who was non-Indian one day, a full-status Algonquin the next. Change, and the sometimes absurd life you are given when you are Indian in Canada, did not faze him.

He was eventually offered a full-time job at CAP. Mr. Brazeau was smart, articulate, and perhaps it didn't hurt that he had once been a model. He was, to put it mildly, an extremely presentable face for the organization.

He became vice-chief of the organization in 2005 and, in February 2006, when National Chief Dwight Dorey stepped down, was made acting chief. At its annual convention in November of that year, the delegates, looking for a fresh start, unanimously elected Patrick Brazeau to be their national chief.

What Mr. Brazeau has done since becoming national chief of CAP has created headlines across the country and has shown -- in wide relief -- the fault lines in both aboriginal politics and aboriginal life.

Or to put it another way, the young boy who grew up within rock-throwing distance of a reserve finally decided to throw a few.

Patrick Brazeau walks out of the bush on a road leading into Maniwaki. He is dressed in a dark green suit and loafers. Mist swirls around him as he walks. A photographer takes pictures and, if you were to drive by, you might think it was an advertising shoot with a paid model.

You might wonder what the model was there to sell. At 32, he's young, but not too young; handsome, but he has long hair; nice suit, but it's unbuttoned. Maybe the ad campaign is for a fashionable new, fuel-efficient SUV.

But what Mr. Brazeau is selling is something else entirely: Nothing less than a dismantling of the Indian reserve system in Canada, the abolition of the Indian Act and the reconstituting of Canada's traditional aboriginal nations.

In short, a pretty radical ad campaign.

"The reserve system as we know it is broken and needs to be replaced," says Mr. Brazeau as he stops for a minute on the road. "Billions of dollars are poured every year into that system and what do we have to show for it? Reserves that are scandals, that's what."

Mr. Brazeau has been spreading this message since becoming the national chief of CAP. He has written opinion pieces for newspapers, appeared on television and radio shows, travelled the country telling people that if anyone is serious about solving the problems on Canada's reserves they need to "get rid of a lot of chiefs."

That's for starters. You also have to abolish the Indian Act, amalgamate many First-Nations communities, bring back the traditional aboriginal nations, and, oh yes, redirect billions of dollars of federal funding to natives living off reserve.

Under his vision, the 633 native communities in Canada would be reduced to between 60 and 80. The 10 Algonquin reserves in Quebec and Ontario, for example, would become one. Same for the Cree. The Mohawk. And so on.

He would also redirect the flow of nearly $10 billion in federal funding that goes to support aboriginal programs and services in Canada.

"The lion's share of the federal government's more than $9-billion investment in aboriginal programs and services supports the system of Indian Act reserves," Mr. Brazeau wrote in an op-ed piece for the Citizen. "Yet Statistics Canada census data show that 79 per cent of Canada's aboriginal peoples live away from reserve communities."

He ended his article in an artful and politically astute way, complimenting Prime Minister Stephen Harper for having "committed" to addressing this fiscal imbalance, criticizing former prime minister Paul Martin (a man who will never appear on the federal political landscape again) for "lots of talk" and then saying of Mr. Martin's successor, St?phane Dion, he has "an open mind."

The bricks-and-bouquets Mr. Brazeau was tossing show clearly what the stakes are in the political game he is playing. To realize his vision he will need the support of a prime minister. Doesn't really matter which one. Liberal. Conservative. It makes no difference. (This in itself is a remarkable change for an aboriginal leader in Canada, where Liberals have been the political party of choice.)

He needs a prime minister because what he is trying to accomplish is revolutionary. The sort of thing cabinet ministers can't sign off on.

"Maybe I'm ruffling some feathers," Mr. Brazeau admits as he starts to walk down the mist-enshrouded road one more time, the photographer walking backward in front of him. "If I am, then maybe it's time."

A fox entering a hen house ruffles fewer feathers than Patrick Brazeau. Not long after he was sworn in as national chief of CAP, letters began to arrive in the office of Indian and Northern Affairs Minister Jim Prentice.

"I challenge you to demand that the Congress of Aboriginal People issue proof of their membership and aboriginal ancestry," wrote Jean-Guy Whiteduck, the longtime chief of the Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg reserve. "Mr. Brazeau and his father were reinstated into the Kitigan Zibi Amishinabeg First Nation," continued Mr. Whiteduck, "after the 1985 C-31 amendments to the Indian Act. Mr. Brazeau never resided on the reserve and was raised in the town of Maniwaki and had little or no contact with reserve life in all his years of existence."

Chief Lawrence Joseph of the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations wrote the minister to say he had "grave concerns regarding the structure of CAP, its funding, its electoral process and its influence on national and federal issues."

Angus Toulouse, regional chief of Ontario, wrote to Mr. Brazeau personally, demanding he "cease and desist your irresponsible and unsubstantiated attacks on the legitimately elected First Nation's leadership." Not stopping there - just warming up in fact - Mr. Toulouse went on to tell Mr. Brazeau: "Real nation building must be driven by the actual citizens and leadership of those nations, and not ill-defined, non-representative entities trying to curry favour with the government of the day."

Ouch. In response to the allegations, Mr. Brazeau points out that CAP went through a rigorous federal audit in 2006 (during which their funding was frozen for four months) and they passed handily at the end of the day, with the government re-instating its $5 million in annual funding.

(A separate audit did find problems with their Ontario affiliate, and that group was asked to leave CAP in 2006. There is still no representation from Ontario in the national group, which leaves British Columbia and Quebec as the largest provincial affiliates in CAP.)

As for a list of members, Mr. Brazeau says it is important to distinguish between "constituents" and card-carrying "members" of an organization. Critics can say what they want, but CAP represents all natives living off reserve, he says. That is their constituency. Their membership, well, that is something else.

"In response to these concerns, we have asked our provincial affiliates to supply us with hard membership numbers at this year's Annual General Assembly," says Mr. Brazeau. "I will have those numbers by late fall. If I were to guess today, though, I would say we have around 150,000 members."

Still, it will take more than audits and membership lists to quiet the uproar Mr. Brazeau has created at the Assembly of First Nations. "With all due respect to Patrick, he needs to spend more time in our communities," says Roger Augustine, chief of staff for Assembly of First Nations National Chief Phil Fontaine.

"He is attacking our communities, the people in our communities, but he has never lived there. How can you, in good conscience, do such a thing?"

Not all of Mr. Brazeau's ideas are new. The final report on the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, tabled in Parliament in November 1996, had many of the same suggestions, including the dismantling of the reserve system and the reconstitution of Canada's traditional aboriginal nations.

But while the RCAP report, as it came to be known, did little more than gather dust, Mr. Brazeau is gaining attention across the country with the same suggestions a decade later. The fact he is an aboriginal leader saying we should do away with reserves is no doubt one of the reasons for the attention.

But there are other reasons as well, not least of which is the possibility that a "tipping point" has been reached between the federal government and the aboriginal people of Canada. You just have to look at some of the government's own statistics, and recent news stories, to see what has been building up in the past 10 years.

According to the 2001 Census (the last year for which we have figures) there are 967,305 people in Canada who identify themselves as aboriginal. While two-in-three of these people are First Nations Indians, nearly one third are Métis, the fastest growing aboriginal group in the country, and one which has little legal standing in Canada.

"There are no rules to determine if someone is M?tis," says Fred Caron, the assistant deputy minister for the Federal Interlocutor. (Created in 1985, the Federal Interlocutor is always the Minister of Indian and Northern Affairs, with the mandate to act as "point of contact" between the government and aboriginal Canadians living off reserve.)

"Métis are recognized in the Constitution as one of Canada's aboriginal peoples, but it is not an easy thing to define," Mr. Caron continues. "This is a problem whenever you start talking about aboriginal Canadians who fall outside the Indian Act.

"Reserves, for example, are federal enclaves. But if an aboriginal Canadian has never lived on a reserve, or leaves the reserve, then there is no similar relationship (with the federal government). Who represents them? It's a good question."

Not only is it a good question, it is becoming a pressing one. While the figure is often debated, most people now concede the majority of status Indians have left their communities. StatsCan estimates the number of off-reserve Status Indians at 51 per cent.

When you factor in the rest of the aboriginal population (Canada recognizes three aboriginal groups: First Nation Indians, M?tis and Inuit) then the figure jumps dramatically. According to StatsCan, 79 per cent of the entire aboriginal population in Canada does not live on a reserve.

"Of those Indians who live off reserve, 70 per cent live in cities," says Mr. Caron. "And 70 per cent of those live in five or six big cities. The movement to large urban settings is pretty clear."

And then there is a final stat, one that is gaining a lot of attention on Parliament Hill: the median age of aboriginal people in Canada is 24.7 years. The median age for the non-aboriginal population is 37.7 years.

Put it all together and you have this - aboriginal people in Canada are an increasingly young, displaced, populace and yet when the federal government funds aboriginal programs and services it continues to pour eight dollars out of every nine into a reserve system that was devised in the 19th century.

To people like Patrick Brazeau, that's like maintaining a fleet of wooden ships when the Bismarck is bearing down on you.

It is mid-afternoon in Maniwaki and we are sitting in what was once D?panneur Brazeau. There are wedding photos on a kitchen table, retrieved by Mr. Brazeau's father, Marcel, and more framed photos on tables throughout the room.

"This used to be the store," says Mr. Brazeau, as he sweeps his arms around his father's living room. "We lived upstairs, and this is where the store was. Right where we're sitting."

He grew up here with his two brothers, played hockey for the local Maniwaki team, took his first karate lesson at a gym on the main street (he has a second-degree black belt), but admits he doesn't get back to the village much these days.

Today, he lives in Gatineau with his wife and two young children. He's often on the road, travelling across Canada preaching the gospel of dismantling the Indian Act. He gets invited to international conferences, where he talks about the problems facing "urban indigenous peoples," as a recent conference in Chile was titled.

As we walk around Maniwaki later in the afternoon it becomes obvious he enjoys the job and the pace of it. He says one day he may run for elected office in the "mainstream."

"I may take a stab at federal politics," he says. "I've thought about that. It may be something I'm interested in down the road."

While we walk, people come up and talk to Mr. Brazeau. One man stops to say: "Why aren't you out on the highway with your friend?"

I don't understand the comment right away, but then remember a native blockade was set up on Highway 117 north of Maniwaki the day before. I ask Mr. Brazeau what the man meant.

"Oh," he answers, "he's talking about Guillaume. It's a bit of a joke. He's no friend of mine."

We keep walking and before long another man comes up to us.

"Hey, I heard your friend on the radio," he says. "He sounded real upset."

"He always is," says Mr. Brazeau. "Let me know when Guillaume isn't upset."

One of the people at the blockade is Guillaume Carle, Mr. Brazeau's most bitter foe, the national chief of a rival organization called the Confederation of Aboriginal People.

Mr. Carle is also from Maniwaki and, just like Mr. Brazeau, is a martial arts expert and former model. The similarities between the two men are almost eerie.

But it is the differences that will make me take a drive down Highway 117 the following week to meet Mr. Carle and to visit a community called La Domaine for a first-hand look at what happens to some Indians once they leave the reserve.

Ron Corbett can be reached at ron.corbett@chumottawa.ca

Patrick Brazeau on ... Recent posts on brazman.blogspot.com

The national day of action in June

'We do not support the national day of action ... We are concerned that protests will only shed a negatiuve light on aboriginal peoples and will not truly serve to educate Canadians'

Aboriginal accountability

'I would like to know exactly where the $10.2 billion [in federal native funding] is going ... because those funds belong to grassroots people ... not little empires created by chiefs and councils'

Who's an aboriginal in Canada?

976,000 Canadians call themselves aboriginal

767,000 people fit the definition of 'status Indian'

1.3 million said they had aboriginal ancestry

51% of status Indians live off-reserve

79% of people who identify themselves as aboriginals do not live on a reserve

$1 of federal funding is spent off reserves for every $8 spent on reserves

- Citizen files, StatsCan 2001 census

Much of the controversy over policies, funding and services for aboriginal people comes from disagreements over who is officially an Indian in the eyes of the federal government. This status defines, among other matters, whether they have access to government services and, in many communites, defines how individuals are regarded by their peers.

The assigning of "status" to some aboriginals and not others, in fact, led to the founding of the organization that Patrick Brazeau now leads. The Congress of Aboriginal Peoples was founded in 1971 as the Native Council of Canada. On its website, CAP says it was established "to represent the interests nationally of Métis and non-status Indians, a population that outnumbered all other native people combined ... [and] to address the lack of recognition of themselves as aboriginal peoples and to challenge the exclusion of our constituency from federal responsibility."

Definitions

Aboriginal people in Canada are officially designated by the Canadian government in one of three groups:

- North American Indian

The federal government signed treaties with First Nations, before and after Confederation in 1867, for rights such as health, education, housing and hunting. To be designated a status Indian, an aboriginal person must register under the Indian Act. Although the rules are complex, a person can usually register if one or both of their parents are also registered or are eligible for registration.

A status Indian does not have to live on their home reserve to receive benefits, but they do have to pay income tax on any income earned off reserve. Indians working on reserves do not pay income tax.

The Indian Act was revamped in 1985 to restore status to :

- women (and their children) who had lost that right when they married a man who was not a status Indian;

- those who'd been required to renounce their status in order to vote before 1960;

- those whose mothers and paternal grandmothers didn't have status before marriage ;

- to offspring born out of wedlock to a status mother and non-status father.

Those changes added 175,000 persons to the Indian registry, but some bands have refused to restore memberships. Currently, some 767,000 people fit the definition of status Indian.

British Columbia's Supreme Court ruled last month that the 1985 amendments to the Indian Act continue to discriminate against persons who attempt to claim Indian status through their maternal lineage. The ruling could add as many as 200,000 new status Indians unless the the federal government appeals the decision. Justice Carol Ross also raised concerns about the 1985 provisions for a "second-generation cutoff" by the government, which means that an increasing number of grandchildren of persons who were status Indians in 1985 are being denied their status when they marry non-natives.

- Métis

The government has no legal definition for Métis people, although a 2003 Supreme Court decision granting Métis the same hunting rights as status Indians also urged the government to come up with membership requirements. The court loosely defined Métis as those who are members of a Métis community and have proof of an ancestral connection to the community.

- Inuit

The government holds land-claim agreements with the country's four Inuit regions, entitling them to post-secondary education, health benefits and hunting rights. Inuit can gain their designation through birth or marriage. They lose their benefits if they fail to keep a link with their home region for 10 years.
 

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