Aboriginal Liberal Youth of Saskatchewan (ALYS) founder, Kevin Seesequasis recently had an opportunity to chat with the Dr. Carolyn Bennett, Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Critic for the Liberal Party of Canada, and Member of Parliament for St-Paul’s.
Here’s how it went:
KS: First off, thank you very much for taking time out of your unimaginably busy schedule to discuss these important issues with ALYS! I guess this first question- is not really a question- but perhaps you could explain a little bit about your background, how you came into politics, where you’re from etc?
CB: I was trained as a Family Doctor, worked at Women’s College Hospital and am an Assistant Professor in the Department of Family and Community Medicine. I loved teaching especially low-risk obstetrics. Women’s College was very focused on interdisciplinary and community-based care and social determinants of health. I became politicized during the fight against the merger of our hospital, even though I didn’t know that was ‘politics’ at the time! I was then asked to run for the Liberal Party in the provincial election, and lost in 1995. In 1997 I was asked to run federally and won! I have served on the Standing Committees on Health, Justice, Finance, Human Resources Development, Defence, and Ethics. I chaired Women’s Caucus, the Sub-Committee on the Status of Persons with Disabilities and the Library of Parliament Committee. In 2003, in the wake of the SARS crisis, I was asked by Paul Martin to be the Minister of State (Public Health) and was part of his Aboriginal Affairs Committee of Cabinet, which was involved in directing the government’s approach to the Kelowna Accord. Since then, I have been the critic for Social Development, Seniors, Public Health, Health, Democratic Renewal and now Aboriginal Affairs.
KS: How did you come to be in your role as Aboriginal Affairs Critic, what do you do? What do you feel is your biggest challenge in this role?
CB: I actually asked Interim Leader Bob Rae for this role. I had been at the Cabinet table during the Kelowna process, and know that the relationship between Canada and First Nations, Inuit and Métis requires mutual respect and mutual accountability. I know how much ground we have lost in the last six years, and wanted to help as much as possible to move the conversation back in the right direction. My biggest challenge as Aboriginal Affairs Critic continues to be how vast this portfolio is, but I rely on the advice and wisdom of my House and Senate Colleagues, former Prime Minister Paul Martin, members of the Aboriginal Peoples’ Commission, and past candidates like Cynthia Wesley-Esquimaux.
KS: There are prophecies of an “8th Fire” by some Aboriginal groups- or a point at which Aboriginal people take their rightful place among the Nations of the world. With such events occurring around the world like the “Arab Spring” or the “Occupy Movement”- in terms of a general understanding/acceptance of Aboriginal people in Canada, do you think the current domestic events involving Aboriginal people are indicative of what Bob Rae called the “Canadian Spring” at the Liberal convention?
CB: I certainly think that Canadians are beginning to take notice of the unequal access to services like health, education, and water for Aboriginal peoples in Canada, and have started to ask their elected representatives to do much more. However, almost every day I encounter examples of Canadians’ fundamental lack of knowledge of the history of the Crown-Aboriginal relationship. I know that First Nations, Inuit and Métis are ready to take their rightful place, as you say, but the rest of the country needs to have a better understanding of where we’ve come from and where we need to go. As the recent interim report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission clearly recommended, non-Aboriginal Canadians need an education on our shared history, starting with the intergenerational legacies of the residential schools system.
KS: In that same breath, Conservative Minister of Natural Resources, Joe Oliver recently characterized environmental groups opposed to the Enbridge Pipeline as “radicals”. There are many First Nations and Aboriginal groups opposed to this development. What are your thoughts on the Minister’s label?
CB: When I raised this issue in the Commons during Question Period on January 31st, I made the point that calling First Nations and Aboriginal groups “radicals” and “adversaries” with respect to oil sands and pipeline development is entirely inconsistent with the focus on “strengthening the relationship” after the Crown-First Nations Gathering. Here’s what I asked the Prime Minister: “Will the Prime Minister apologize for this shameful position and affirm today that First Nations have constitutional rights that must be recognized and respected when it comes to the development of anything on or affecting their traditional lands?” Not surprisingly, I didn’t receive a reply directly from Mr. Harper.
KS: Education has been called the “new Buffalo”… do you get the feeling others in the Liberal Party or any other political party understand the meaning and depth to such a statement?
CB: I first heard this comparison last summer when I visited the Saskatchewan Indian Institute of Technology in Regina, and saw a poster that proudly declared, “Education Is Our Buffalo.” I think there is a greater understanding of what this means, definitely among Liberals, but also among the Parliamentary Press Gallery whose members have reported extensively on recent reports by the Senate Aboriginal Peoples Committee and the National Panel on First Nations Elementary and Secondary Education. These reports provide a framework for ensuring that equal access to properly-funded and culturally-appropriate elementary, secondary and post-secondary education is available to all First Nations, Inuit and Métis. In the last election, Liberals committed to removing the 2% cap on education funding. At the end of March, we will see if the Conservative government takes this important first step in the 2012 budget.
KS: We’ve all heard of the situation in Attawapiskat and, before I go any further, I want to thank you and Interim Liberal Leader Bob Rae for visiting that community and demonstrating true leadership on this issue! Has the situation in Attawapiskat affected your job- and I guess in a broader context- Canadians’ understanding of Aboriginal people/issues?
CB: Yes, the emergency conditions confronting Attawapiskat certainly drew the attention of the media and the general public to the ongoing emergencies in First Nations communities across the country. For far too many, clean drinking water, housing and educational infrastructure are inaccessible, and have been for far too long. While the focus on Attawapiskat has helped to educate non-Aboriginals (as the TRC has recommended) it is frustrating that the conversation has not expanded to the realities of other northern and remote communities, like Kashechewan and Fort Albany, Attawapiskat’s neighbours along the James Bay coast, and the Island Lake region in Manitoba.
KS: The Crown – First Nations’ Gathering seems to have lost steam- what were your general impressions of the gathering? Having been directly involved in the Kelowna process, is there anything you would have done differently?
CB: I do sense that there is disappointment with the outcomes of the Crown-First Nations Gathering, especially after the government referred to First Nations as “adversaries” and Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan called the recommendations of the National Panel on First Nations Education simply “aspirational.” I would have done what we did with Kelowna: start by asking First Nations what they wanted to discuss, and include the provincial and territorial governments in every step of the process. For example, at the Crown-First Nations Gathering, I heard Chiefs repeatedly ask for resource revenue sharing to be on the table, but this issue can only be discussed with the provinces which have primary responsibility for the resource revenue regimes in their jurisdictions.
KS: What would you say to youth considering becoming involved in politics? Where should they start?
CB: I wish that I had become involved in politics much earlier. As Peter Newman has said “Politics is the art of making the NECESSARY possible”. Therefore it’s important to be part of the process that decides what’s NECESSARY. If we’re not at the table, others will decide for us! That’s especially important for youth…. Because others will decide what will be their future. ‘Politics’ has become sort of a swear word…. It’s important that we understand that engaged citizens are the cornerstone of our ‘democracy’. If there are things that we really care about and want changed, we all need to be paying attention to what our government is doing. Voting is just one part. Shaping better public policy between elections is a real reason to get involved.
KS: Any last words to ALYS members?
CB: Working with the Aboriginal Peoples’ Commission, indigenous Senators and past-candidates is truly inspiring. I look forward to all your advice. I believe that the education of non-aboriginal people on indigenous issues is an exciting challenge that Liberals can do together. It is an exciting time to make real progress on the consciousness-raising and also be working together for real solutions. Meegwetch.
KS: Thank you Dr. Bennett for taking the time out of your unimaginably busy schedule to participate in this Q & A Session… Now we know why “The Equivocator” gave you a “You-Go-Girl” award!