Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Criticisms of chief cross the line

Time for Harper to censure pair

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OTTAWA -- Conservative senator Patrick Brazeau is a colourful character.

He tends to speak his mind and almost as often as not, he speaks with one foot jammed into his mouth.

But his past skirmishes, including having to temporarily close his Twitter account last year after he called a parliamentary reporter a bitch in a tweet, seem inconsequential compared to the latest one. Last week, at a fundraising event in Ottawa for a local provincial Tory politician, Brazeau was recorded discussing the Idle No More movement and the hunger strike/fast/liquid diet protest of Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence.

"They don't stand for anything," he said of the Idle No More protesters. "I, as an Algonquin person, am living proof that no one will colonize me."

He was not happy Spence refused to meet with any government MPs, but allowed opposition MPs freely inside her compound.

It's all well and good for Brazeau to disagree with Spence. Just because he is aboriginal does not mean he has to believe in everything another aboriginal person does. Diversity does and should exist among First Nations.

Criticizing Spence for refusing to speak to government representatives is a totally legitimate call -- how can they expect change if they shun the people who ultimately hold the power to help?

But Brazeau did not stop his criticism at the motives of the movement or its methods. He turned it into a personal attack on Spence.

"I was sick two weeks ago. I had the flu and I lost five pounds. I look at Miss Spence, when she started her hunger strike, and now?" Someone from the audience answered the question for him: "She's fatter."

The audience laughed.

When a sitting senator of the government turns a serious conversation into a punch line, we have officially fallen below the level of decency and professionalism expected of our leaders.

Instead of just trolls on blogs and media websites calling Spence fat and suggesting she was a faker who obviously was sneaking in Snickers bars when the blurry-eyed national media weren't looking, now we have a senator doing it himself.

He wasn't the only one making comments at the event. Ottawa-area Conservative MP Royal Galipeau was also there, talking about how he visited Spence in her teepee on Victoria Island.

"I stood in the circle around Chief Spence. I noticed that manicure of hers. I tell you (my wife) can't afford it."

It's one of the most common accusations tossed off at chiefs and councillors in Canada -- that since so many of their people are living in poverty, they, too, should be unable to afford to buy a car, own a house or take a vacation somewhere warm in the winter. There are 3.2 million poor people in Canada, 634,000 of them children, according to Statistics Canada. It is as ridiculous to suggest Brazeau and Galipeau, or Prime Minister Stephen Harper, should forego most of their own six-figure salaries as long as there are poor people in Canada as it is to suggest Spence can't possibly be trusted as a chief of a desperate reserve since she has well-kept nails.

That this was all coming from one elected and one appointed parliamentarian makes it all the more alarming.

Brazeau hasn't apologized and refuses to do so. Galipeau admitted he shouldn't have made the comments because it is now drawing attention to himself, but he did not apologize for them or withdraw the remarks.

But more importantly, Harper -- the leader and boss of both of those individuals -- has said nary a word to dispel these comments.

His office ignored a media question Friday wondering what he thought of the comments.

Murray Clearsky, the grand chief of the Southern Chiefs Organization in Manitoba, wrote to Harper Friday asking for an acknowledgement that "two of your minions have crossed a line that requires immediate reparations for the good of the country."

The comments, said Clearsky, were "insulting" and Harper's silence "is a reflection of the condescending view you and your administration hold toward the original peoples of this land."

The comments made by Brazeau and Galipeau do nothing to help the growing divide between First Nations and the federal government. They do nothing but play into the stereotypes and racism that underlie much of the struggle First Nations have had in this country for the past 140 years.

They do nothing to move forward on any of the serious and immense issues facing First Nations and Canada.

And they encourage the racist thinking that has reared its ugly head in spades since Idle No More and Spence started gaining national attention.

mia.rabson@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 4, 2013 A5

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