Patrick Brazeau: Harper's strategic aboriginal appointment

Patrick Brazeau's surprise elevation to the Senate in 2008 stemmed from a partisan friendship with the Conservatives that seemed to work for both sides, Ira Basen writes. His sudden fall, as he faces criminal charges, is being shared as well.

A partisan friendship that worked for both sides

Senator Patrick Brazeau is escorted out of the Parliament buildings Tuesday after he was suspended from duties by the Senate in wake of the criminal charges he is facing. (Fred Chartrand / Canadian Press)

Opposition politicians are now claiming that Stephen Harper should have known that Patrick Brazeau was bad news when he appointed him to the Senate in December 2008.

They point out that, within a few weeks of his appointment, there were a string of public allegations of workplace sexual harassment and missing child support payments, some of which the government was apparently aware of in advance.

Aboriginal leaders from other organizations had already written the government, questioning the membership and spending of the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples, the organization that Brazeau had headed, the Toronto Star reported.

And other news organizations were detailing some of the other allegations against the young native leader as early as January 2009, including a complaint that had been previously lodged with the Ontario Human Rights Commission.

Today, the prime minister describes the current sexual assault charges against Senator Brazeau as "extremely appalling" and "disappointing", but he insisted last week that it is only "over a recent period" that "something has been going very wrong.

"When Mr. Brazeau was appointed to the Senate," the prime minister said, "he was the national chief of one of the country's largest and most respected aboriginal organizations."

That's true. Brazeau was the national chief of the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples, an umbrella group that represents the interests of nine provincial and territorial affiliates on the national stage.

The Congress has no individual members, and offers no services or programs of its own other than research and advocacy. But its affiliate groups claim to represent the interests of over 800,000 off-reserve Indian, Inuit, and Metis people across Canada.

Still, why appoint Patrick Brazeau to the Senate? Why not a representative from one of Canada's four other national aboriginal groups?

The answer to that question may be as old as the Senate itself. The Congress of Aboriginal Peoples had come to the political aid of Harper's Conservative party in the critical 2006 election that first brought it to power, as well as in the early years of the Harper government.

And governments like to look after their friends.

The Kelowna Accord and the 2006 campaign

Aboriginal affairs rarely receive much attention in federal election campaigns, but the campaign of 2006 was a notable exception.

The reason was the so-called Kelowna Accord, an agreement that was the culmination of 18 months of consultation between the federal Liberal government of the day as well as all the provinces and territories, and the five national aboriginal groups, including CAP.

Struck on Nov. 25 2005, the accord called for a five-year $5.1 billion commitment by Ottawa to, among other things, improve housing, education, health services and economic development for the country's aboriginal peoples.

But just 72 hours after the agreement was announced in Kelowna B.C., the Paul Martin government was defeated and an election was called for Jan. 23, 2006.

Martin put the accord at the centre of his campaign, arguing that only a new Liberal government could maintain the momentum that had been achieved in Kelowna.

But the Conservative leader was considerably less enthusiastic. Harper declared that a Conservative government would "support the principles and objectives" of Kelowna. But he would not commit to spending the full amount that was set out to implement the agreement.

Aboriginal tension

Meanwhile, within the aboriginal community, the long-standing tension between the country's two largest native groups, the Assembly of First Nations and the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples, was beginning to boil over.

The AFN is the organization that reflects the chiefs and governments of the more than 630 First Nations communities in Canada.

But well over 50 per cent of status and non-status Indians don't live on reserves, and according to CAP, their interests are not adequately represented by the AFN.

In addition, the vast bulk of the $9 billion that the federal government spends annually on aboriginal programs and services goes to the reserves, another bone of contention between the two groups.

When the election campaign began in November 2005, CAP went looking for a party that could reflect its interests. It would not likely be the Liberals, who were seen as being too close to the AFN, and its then national chief Phil Fontaine.

But the Conservatives were a different matter.

Harper himself had not said much about where he stood on the reserve versus the non-reserve question. But his senior policy adviser and former campaign chairman, Tom Flanagan, a political scientist at the University of Calgary, had said a great deal in 2000 in a controversial book called First Nations? Second Thoughts

According to Flanagan, the reserve system was "anomalous and dysfunctional," and while he recognized that there was no realistic way of getting rid of it, he argued that the government could eventually make the reserves go away by cutting off their supply of federal cash.

"Governments should help the reserves to run as honestly and efficiently as possible," he wrote, "but should not flood them with even more money, which would encourage unsustainable growth in the number of residents."

Instead, he said, the federal government should focus its attention and money on improving the lives of the 800,000 aboriginals who had chosen to live off the reserve.

CAP's letter

On Dec. 14, 2005, in the midst of the election campaign, CAP sent a letter to the Liberals, Conservatives and NDP with a list of 10 questions designed to determine where each party stood on the issue of support for non-reserve natives.

The Liberals never responded to the letter. The NDP suggested the CAP consult its party platform.

But on Jan. 10, Stephen Harper wrote a lengthy and detailed reply in which he called for "a realignment of federal aboriginal expenditures to include appropriate and adequate distribution of resources in order to accommodate the needs of off-reserve and non-status Indians."

Seven days later, the Congress issued a letter under the names of CAP's then national chief Dwight Dorey and vice-chief Patrick Brazeau endorsing the Conservatives, calling the party a "promising and respectful alternative to the status quo."

On election night, Dorey was in the Calgary hotel ballroom with Harper to celebrate the Conservative victory. A few weeks later, he resigned as national chief, and was succeeded by Brazeau.

Friends with benefits?

This new relationship between the Conservatives and CAP proved to be enormously beneficial to both sides.

For the congress, it gave them a voice in Ottawa that, for the first time, would be louder than their rivals at the AFN. In November 2006, the new Harper government increased CAP's annual budget from $5 million to $6.3 million.

For the Conservatives, CAP's endorsement went beyond whatever votes it may have swung their way.

Gaining the backing of one of the country's biggest aboriginal groups meant the new government was free to promise new approaches to aboriginal issues without appearing to be indifferent to native suffering, or supporting the assimilationist positions advanced by Tom Flanagan.

A solid bloc of native opposition would have made any changes a much harder sell to Canadian voters. And then there was the small matter of the Kelowna Accord, which, it turned out, Stephen Harper had no intention of taking on.

Even though CAP had been at the table at Kelowna, the accord itself was a one-page document that no one had actually signed their names to.

That allowed the new government to say it was not bound by the agreement, and Patrick Brazeau to help Stephen Harper drive a stake into it.

Speaking to a parliamentary committee that was discussing the accord in November 2006, Brazeau argued that while the process that led to the agreement seemed inclusive, in fact, "Kelowna provided false hope for grassroots people — real people, in real need — while enriching organizations and the aboriginal elite."

Brazeau echoed the Conservative critique that the accord did not demand enough accountability for the billions of dollars that would flow to First Nations, and did not break down how much would stay on reserves and how much would go to natives living off the reserves.

And while the minority Parliament eventually passed a private member's bill, sponsored by Paul Martin, that called for the Kelowna Accord to be implemented, the Conservative government, backed by the Congress, chose to ignore it.

Kelowna was dead, and two years later, in December 2008, the 34-year-old Brazeau was appointed to the Senate, for what looked to be a near 40-year run and from where he has continued to snipe at opposition parties and First Nations chiefs.