ORLÉANS - The guest speaker stole the show at a dinner for a local provincial PC candidate on Jan. 29.
Many of the 80-plus people at the Orléans legion wanted to shake the hand of Conservative Senator Patrick Brazeau after he shared his ideas for financial accountability for First Nations chiefs while questioning Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence’s recent hunger strike.
The senator, an aboriginal Canadian who was born in Maniwaki, Que., made the comments during a dinner at the Orléans legion that was intended to update Ottawa-Orléans PC riding association members and bring out volunteers for candidate Andrew Lister’s next provincial election campaign.
Brazeau, 38, is the youngest member of the Senate and is known for his plain-speaking demands for changes to aboriginal governance. He has criticized the Idle No More movement, a campaign to put aboriginal issues on the top of the federal government’s to-do list. Brazeau’s comments about Idle No More have drawn a strong response from some First Nations leaders.
During Spence’s hunger strike, her Twitter account was used to call Brazeau “a colonized Indian,” although the tweet was later withdrawn.
During the speech in Orléans, Brazeau referred to Spence’s 44 days on Victoria Island as a “so-called hunger strike,” and mocked her physical shape.
“I was sick two weeks ago,” Brazeau said. “I had the flu and I lost five pounds.
“I look at Miss Spence, when she started her hunger strike, and now?” Brazeau added as a voice in the hall called out, “She’s fatter,” which drew laughter from much of the audience.
In attendance were provincial and federal conservatives, including Ottawa-Orléans Conservative MP Royal Galipeau and Nepean-Carleton MPP Lisa MacLeod. Orléans Coun. Rainer Bloess and former Ontario PC cabinet minister Brian Coburn were also at the dinner.
Galipeau also went after Spence in his remarks after Brazeau spoke. He said he went to Victoria Island on Dec. 26 and was allowed into Spence’s tent because he wasn’t recognized as a Conservative MP.
“I stood in the circle around Chief Spence,” Galipeau said. “I noticed that manicure of hers. I tell you Anne can’t afford it,” he said, referring to his wife.
“Most people in Idle No More are people with my skin colour and about my age. It reminded me of the 1960s and 1970s flower people who are now organizers for the NDP in Ottawa Centre. They are the same people I saw in the Occupy movement the previous year.”
Galipeau’s visit to Victoria Island followed Brazeau’s attempt to speak with Spence. He said he was turned away when he went to see her on Dec. 24 and was told Spence didn’t want to meet with him.
“That day … changed the dialogue about what she was really about,” Brazeau said. “What she was really about is the fact that the year before there was a housing crisis at Attawapiskat, her home community. It was bad.”
Brazeau said Spence met with members of many other parties, but not Conservatives.
“She refused to meet with any Conservatives – the Conservative government, whether you like it or not, who are in power, who can make changes, who can make decisions on behalf of her situation and other people in Canada. And she refused to meet any of them.”
He said he then started to receive “hate mail, criticism and death threats.”
“I care as much as anyone in this room does. Nobody wants to see anyone living in those poverty-stricken situations but there shouldn’t be two different rules for different politicians in this country.
“If you’re a white politician you should be accustomed to the same rules, you should follow the same rules and be accountable to the people you represent; the same thing as First Nations people. And the longer we are hypocritical about it, the longer these problems are going to persist. I have seen it too often.”
Brazeau said Idle No More has managed to put aboriginal issues in the news but he doesn’t support the movement’s methods.
“They don’t stand for anything,” he said. “I, as an Algonquin person, am living proof that no one will colonize me.”
Prior to his speech, Brazeau told the EMC that transparency is the number one issue for First Nations leaders. He wants changes that require them to account for every dollar they receive from the federal government.
“All Canadians, including First Nations people, have an interest in how money is spent, where it is going and that they have access to funds when they need it,” he said. “Unfortunately, (the chiefs) aren’t speaking out for more accountability. Everything but that.”
That opinion makes him a lightning rod for criticism from some aboriginal leaders, although Brazeau says there are many chiefs who agree with his position. He also said the Indian Act should be scrapped and that the federal Aboriginal Affairs department is unnecessary.
“The Indian Act has to go,” he said. “It is the most racist, paternalistic legislation in the world. It denies First Nations people the opportunities other Canadians enjoy.”
Brazeau said many Canadians may think aboriginals have advantages such as not having to pay taxes, but he points out that many aboriginals don’t own the land they live on. During a question-and-answer session after his speech, he suggested First Nations people should be given ownership of the land where they live or be able to buy back land previously sold to the federal government.
Brazeau said Aboriginal Affairs includes many well-meaning staff but wastes money due to the size of the bureaucracy and the way money is earmarked for programs.
“It’s like a father-son relationship: ‘I know what’s best for you,’” he said.
He added that the federal government needs to move to direct payments while allowing more self-governance for First Nations communities.
Brazeau alluded to two issues he’s dealt with since being named to the Senate by Prime Minister Stephen Harper in 2008. He thanked Lister – who serves as the senator’s lawyer – for his help dealing with problems, including accusations that he improperly received a housing allowance.
Brazeau received more than $20,000 to offset personal costs because he claimed a residence in Maniwaki, about 130 kilometres from Parliament Hill. Some media reports indicated that he rarely stayed at the Maniwaki address but spent his time in Ottawa.
Brazeau told the Orléans audience that his political career hasn’t been very long but has “been fraught with a lot of issues,”
“But he has defended me,” Brazeau said of Lister. “He has defended me because what I have done is right, what I have done is honest, and what I have done, even though it comes with a lot of criticism, is what is needed in this country.”
Speaking after the dinner, the senator said he’s already spoken in front of a sub-committee that looks at possible accounting breaches.
“I furnished documents about my primary residence,” Brazeau said. “It’s up to them to determine. The facts are the facts. I always practise what I preach and I still invite people to prove any allegation against me.”
Brazeau also defended his recent attendance record in the Senate after being identified as the senator with the fewest appearnaces during the session which ran from June 2011 to April 2012.
“My attendance was not very good,” he said. “I went through some personal issues, some family issues. But since September I would say my record has been stellar.”
During the evening’s opening remarks, Lister told local PC party supporters that he wants to “hit the ground running” if an election is called in Ontario.
He told the EMC that the PCs aren’t seeking an election, “but if another budget comes along like the last one, with no jobs plan and no plan for the deficit, you’ll see every Progressive Conservative MPP vote against it.”