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Natives still have Ontario's attention

CHRISTIE BLATCHFORD

Published on Thursday, Jan. 21, 2010

Globe and Mail

There's a notion in the air that the first nations drew the short straw in the recent Ontario government cabinet shuffle, which saw the Aboriginal Affairs Ministry folded into Attorney-General Chris Bentley's lap.

The sum total of the evidence in support of this theory is that Aboriginal Affairs will no longer have its own minister, but rather be represented by Mr. Bentley.

Yet if the Ontario government were judged by where it puts its money, Aboriginal Affairs would be by any measure doing rather nicely.

Consider what provincial taxpayers have spent in the past four years on the Caledonia debacle alone.

The Six Nations occupation, which began at a former housing development called Douglas Creek Estates on Feb. 28, 2006, had as of June last year cost the province $64.38-million. That is an astonishing figure which doesn't even count the $15.8-million purchase of the land (the feds paid for that) or the recent out-of-court settlement, far more paltry, with Caledonia residents Dave Brown and Dana Chatwell, who had sued Ontario and the OPP for abandoning them to the lawlessness and violence there.

While most of the cost was for policing - ironic, given the testimony heard at the civil lawsuit and what other residents who live near DCE say about the lack of same - the province also paid $2.63-million for what is described on the ministry website as "external negotiations, legal and archaeology costs," $1.79-million to pay for "Six Nations negotiations," and another $2.52-million to set up a new branch office in Brantford, the better to deal with Caledonia.

Ministry spokesman Greg Flood couldn't answer yesterday whether the total includes, for instance, the hiring of the alleged big guns to work as various "special or principal representatives" (in chronological order, former MP Jane Stewart, former deputy minister-turned-private sector senior executive Murray Coolican, and more recently former federal government negotiator Tom Molloy) and former Ontario premier David Peterson, who was appointed for a brief time back in the spring of '06 as "the provincial lead" for finding "solutions to immediate problems."

Regardless, their appointments are also some demonstration of the political seriousness with which the Dalton McGuinty government regards aboriginal issues - particularly when they turn into occupations and explode into violence, as this one did.

The truth is, as with many native (there, I've used all the terms now - aboriginal, first nation, native) issues, they are not single-ministry matters, but multi-ministry and multi-government ones.

Land claims, one of which in Caledonia was the purported "root cause" of the occupation, are Ottawa's baby. The OPP falls under the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services; the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing and the Ministry of Economic Development and Trade at different times were involved in Caledonia, and it was the Ministry of Energy and Infrastructure which late last week took possession of the Brown/Chatwell house as part of the out-of-court settlement - and then promptly demolished the house.

As well, Mr. Bentley's own ministry, through the Crown lawyers who represent the government in various civil actions (such as the Brown/Chatwell lawsuit) and the Crown attorneys who prosecute criminal matters, is already deeply involved in aboriginal affairs. The ministry even has its own aboriginal litigation branch, where government lawyers defend claims by natives in civil actions and consult on claims which are merely contemplated.

And to judge by the length of time it took government lawyers to get instructions on the simplest matters in the Brown/Chatwell lawsuit, it looked to me likely that a handful of Ontario government ministers were quite intimately hands-on involved in the case.

Finally, it's instructive to remember that when OPP boss Julian Fantino was sending his now-infamous memo to the Haldimand County mayor and council - it was threats he allegedly made in the note that prompted activist Gary McHale to lay a private charge against the commissioner - he also copied the then-secretary of the Ontario cabinet and two of Mr. McGuinty's senior aides. Why would the commissioner have done that on what was then a pretty minor matter if the Premier and other senior officials in cabinet weren't already knee-deep in the decision-making?

It appears Ontario has taken what might be called a whole-of-government approach to the Caledonia problem. And in throwing millions and millions of taxpayer cash at it, I suspect the government has also set the template for all such similar occupations. Ontario's first nations ought not to feel slighted that they no longer have their own minister; they sure have the government's ear, and ready access to the provincial wallet.

Commissioner Fantino, by the way, was yesterday served by York Regional Police with his summons on that private charge of influencing or attempting to influence municipal officials. He is to appear in court in Cayuga, near Caledonia, next month.