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Politics

Was It Fair to Criticize Indigenous Stances of Green Party? An Exchange

Robert Jago’s Tyee piece draws a rebuttal from Green headquarters, and he replies.

By Haritha Popuri and Robert Jago 21 May 2019 | TheTyee.ca

Haritha Popuri is Research Assistant at Office of Green Party Leader Elizabeth May, O.C., M.P.

Robert Jago is a Montreal-based business person, and member of the Nooksack Tribe and Kwantlen First Nation. His writing can be found at www.rjjago.com.

[Editor’s note: After The Tyee published Robert Jago’s opinion piece “Elizabeth May’s Greens Need to Fix Their Indigenous ‘Vision,’” we received a request from the Green Party to publish their submitted rebuttal. We do so here, followed by a response from Jago.]

THE GREENS’ HARITHA POPURI RESPONDS TO ROBERT JAGO’S PIECE:

As Elizabeth May’s parliamentary research assistant, I was puzzled by Mr. Jago’s presentation of the search results for the number of times she has spoken on the subject of Indigenous peoples. Here is the relevant paragraph:

“Canada’s parliamentary website records the number of times each MP speaks on a subject while in committee. It shows that in the current parliamentary session, May has spoken about Indigenous peoples just five times. She has more comments on the Indigenous Languages Act. Compare that to her 11 comments on New Zealand, 25 comments on corporate governance, 357 on electoral reform. Her public statements and news releases show the same trend.”

I cannot fathom why he chose to focus on Elizabeth’s record at committee when that same publication search tool could have been applied to Hansard, the official record of the House of Commons. The House, of course, is the most public forum in our democracy, one that is open more frequently and for lengthier periods than any individual committee meeting. If Mr. Jago purports to speak for her record across the parliamentary session, a fair assessment would have examined both. Even so, the statistics he pulls for her work in committee specifically demand a closer look.

Using the publication search tool on the “Committees” tab only, entering the search term “Indigenous peoples” and filtering by statements made by Elizabeth, you will find 48 results. Mr. Jago appears to have sorted the results one step further based on the discussed topic. On the topic of “Aboriginal peoples,” the results narrow to five. However, it appears to be the case that this particular tag is left off of committee transcripts from meetings that take up legislation at a point in the amendments process called “clause-by-clause.” This is the case even when the legislation directly concerns Indigenous peoples, like Bill C-91. (I am unsure whether Mr. Jago was being critical of Elizabeth by pointing out that she has more comments under the discussed topic of “Aboriginal languages,” or whether he was trying to be charitable. If the former, it seems rather bizarre to say in discussing Indigenous languages she was not talking about the Indigenous peoples that speak, preserve, and pass them down for future generations.)

The takeaway here is that if a piece of legislation concerns Indigenous peoples — either directly like Bill C-91, or indirectly like Bill C-81 on accessibility — the vast majority of the time the discussion will not be tagged with “Aboriginal peoples” when it is at the committee amendments stage (i.e., “clause-by-clause”). (See footnote 1)

Why does this matter? As a member of a small party, Elizabeth does not have the same speaking privileges as MPs from the recognized parties (i.e., the Liberals, Conservatives, and NDP). This is especially the case at committee, where she is not allowed to sit as an official member with the right to make motions or vote. She is allowed to submit amendments for consideration at clause-by-clause, but even then she can only make brief representations in support of her amendments and she cannot sub-amend, withdraw, or vote for them.

Committees often operate as debates go on in the House of Commons. Elizabeth spends most of her time in the Chamber where she has more, but still restricted, privileges than at committee. It should be remembered that committees do more than just study and amend legislation. However, when committees do amend legislation at clause-by-clause, more often than not, you will find Elizabeth there — sometimes rushing between multiple committees and engagements in the House of Commons because there is no other Green MP to replace her!

I would hope that Mr. Jago agrees that amending bills shows a greater effort to shape issues than just talking about them. With this expanded lens, you can see that Elizabeth is on the committee records discussing bills affecting and affected by “Indigenous peoples” on 40 occasions for clause-by-clause, in addition to the five occasions Mr. Jago found that were not for clause-by-clause. It should be pointed out that Elizabeth has introduced amendments based on policy discussions with Indigenous groups for a suite of legislation on a range of issues, including: Bill C-91 on Indigenous languages, Bill C-83 on solitary confinement, Bill C-78 on the Divorce Act, Bill C-75 on criminal justice reform, Bill C-69 on environmental assessment, and Bill C-68 on the Fisheries Act. On May 28, she will be defending amendments to a seventh bill, C-92 on Indigenous child and family services.

No other party leaders attend committees to present amendments at clause-by-clause. They send members of their caucus instead, an option Elizabeth has not had this parliamentary session. What happens, then, if we examine the record from the House of Commons where all party leaders speak?

Using the same search term of “Indigenous peoples” (see footnote 2), once again, you will find the following disaggregated results for a total of 356 interventions:

Putting aside the Bloc Québecois, Elizabeth has discussed matters in relation to Indigenous peoples on nearly as many occasions as the next largest party in the House, the NDP, and that is counting three separate leaders over the course of this session. For every time Mr. Scheer has discussed Indigenous peoples, Elizabeth has spoken 19 times more — and he is the leader of the official Opposition. It is right and appropriate that a prime minister who staked his election on reconciliation and nation-to-nation relationships speaks the most of anyone. I imagine he also enjoys the most expansive speaking privileges of the group.  

As for Mr. Jago’s points about the frequent appearance of “electoral reform” and “New Zealand” in Elizabeth’s committee records, it should be understood that the special committee on electoral reform was the only one she has ever been allowed to join as a full member with all the associated privileges. This distinction ought to have been pointed out to readers in fairness to Elizabeth. The special committee travelled extensively through the summer and fall of 2016, holding consultations on the topic across the country. New Zealand pops up because there were many witnesses from that country testifying about their experience transitioning from a first-past-the-post to a mixed-member-proportional electoral system.

This response has aimed to show the blind-spots in Mr. Jago’s search parameters based on my greater familiarity with parliamentary processes. Mr. Jago’s claim that the Green Party’s public statements and news releases show the same trend as her committee record is unsubstantiated in his article and merits reconsideration given the context provided here.

Finally, I encourage him to read Elizabeth’s community newsletter on reconciliation, delivered to 30,000 households in her constituency in December 2017. There are also a number of notable speeches she has made in the House, such as one on the Anishinabek Nation Education Agreement, another on a bill to remove the sexist provisions of the Indian Act, one on repudiating the Doctrine of Discovery, and finally one on the official exoneration of the six Tsilhqot’in chiefs. 

Footnote 1: If one removes Elizabeth as a filter, you will see that “Aboriginal peoples” as a discussion topic occurs 14,496 times on the committee record. Against this, yes, Elizabeth’s five instances seem rather paltry. However, if you filter by procedural term (i.e., whether discussion was in the context of a bill, a briefing session, estimates, etc.) you will find that “Aboriginal peoples” as a discussion topic cross-references with “Amendments and sub amendments” three times, with “clause-by-clause study” 27 times, and with “committee amendments” one time. That’s a total of 31 out of 14,496 results for “Aboriginal peoples.” Indeed, if you examine “Aboriginal Peoples” with respect to “Bill C-91,” you will find just 14 results, and all of them from the committee’s study of the bill prior to clause-by-clause.

Footnote 2: The trend holds across other search terms. With “Aboriginal peoples,” the results by party leadership are: 65 for the Greens, 77 for the NDP, four for the CPC, and 148 for the Liberals. With “First Nations,” the results are: 62 for the Greens, 54 for the NDP, four for the CPC, and 41 for the Liberals. With “reconciliation,” the results are: 20 for the Greens, 15 for the NDP, 0 for the CPC, and 55 for the Liberals. With “UNDRIP,” the results are: one for Elizabeth, 0 for the NDP, 0 for the CPC, and two for the Liberals.)

ROBERT JAGO RESPONDS:

Last week, I wrote an opinion piece for the Tyee titled “Elizabeth May’s Greens Need to Fix Their Indigenous ‘Vision.’” The piece investigated the Green Party’s views and policy proposals for Indigenous people. Those views and proposals are — I believe — unrealistic and suffer from spelling errors and factual errors which demonstrate a lack of care given to Indigenous peoples and our issues. It was my hope that, as the party is being taken more seriously by many Canadians, a spotlight on the deficiencies in their Indigenous policies would push them to reform. I would like to have seen a recognition by the Greens that Indigenous people deserve more — and in fact I have seen that recognition from at least two Green nominees who reached out to me on Facebook.

However, in a reply posted to Twitter, Green Party leader Elizabeth May wrote:

While she appeared to commit to reorganizing the Vision Green document, she didn’t address the errors or failings in her party’s policy proposals. This has been the approach of some of her supporters in my Twitter feed, in comments on the article and on Facebook. One Green candidate wrote hostile and condescending replies (since deleted) to my op-ed. And here’s a helpful note for progressives: saying (as did one Tyee commenter) that Natives are from a “stone age culture” will make you few friends.

So it is with some disappointment, if not necessarily any surprise, that I see the response sent to the Tyee from the Green Party’s parliamentary office. Instead of fixing the errors that remained days later on the Green Party’s “Vision Green” page on Indigenous people, the Green Party has chosen to concentrate their efforts on the words of a single Indigenous person — i.e., me — to attempt to rebut a single point in the opinion piece.

The Green Party’s representative, Haritha Popuri, does not dispute that their Vision Green document contains numerous factual errors, that they misspell the name of a First Nation, that their policy proposals contradict each other and put an unfair burden on First Nations, or that they consistently perform poorly in ridings with the largest Indigenous populations. Instead the focus of their dispute is on the following sentence: “In the current parliamentary session, May has spoken about Indigenous peoples [in committee] just five times.” She says that this number is unfair for two reasons:

  1. The first reason is that I looked just at Ms. May’s interventions in committee and not her words on the floor of the House of Commons.
  2. If I were to do a search of her committee interventions, using search terms the Green Party’s staffer has proposed, I would find that in fact Ms. May spoke on “Indigenous people” 48 times.

Looking at the first objection first, in the Green Party’s 1,400-word response letter, Ms. Popuri says: “I cannot fathom why he chose to focus on Elizabeth’s record at committee when that same publication search tool could have been applied to Hansard, the official record of the House of Commons. The House, of course, is the most public forum in our democracy, one that is open more frequently and for lengthier periods than any individual committee meeting.”

The fact that the House is open more frequently and for lengthier periods, as the Greens say, and the fact that the number of interventions she made in committee is roughly equal in number to those she made in the house (1,397 vs 1,446), shows the opposite of what Ms. Popuri proposes, which is that committee work is proportionately the biggest venue for Ms. May to speak and act.

That being said, I chose to look at committee work for a different reason. I did so because of something which the Green Party representative acknowledges: “As a member of a small party, Elizabeth does not have the same speaking privileges as MPs from the recognized parties.” Her time on committee is precious and limited, and I believe that reveals her priorities.

Again, from the Green Party rep: “When committees do amend legislation at clause-by-clause, more often than not, you will find Elizabeth there — sometimes rushing between multiple committees.” If Ms. May can’t be everywhere at once, and has to ration her time, one would assume she would go to those places she thought are important, and speak on those issues that she felt mattered. In other words, this data would reveal which issues she actually cared about.

Ms. Popuri quibbles with how I found my numbers on Ms. May’s interventions in the house, and suggests that I used a search tool and applied multiple filters. This is not correct, nor are any of the conclusions she draws from her erroneous assumption. I selected Ms. May’s name from the directory of MPs on the Parliamentary website, then opened the summary on her work in committee, and reviewed the “Discussed Topics” stats in the sidebar. I didn’t use a search tool. However, the party recommends that I do, and if I do, and search for “Indigenous Peoples,” they tell me I will find 48 interventions by Ms. May.

As you can imagine, best practices in the writing of opinion pieces rarely require you to consult with a staffer and the subject of your piece, and have them set the terms of your research. Were you to write a piece on Donald Trump’s wealth, would you rely on an objective third party measure, or would you contact Trump and ask him for tips on what data paints him in the best possible light? Yet this is what the Green Party asks that I do.

So to indulge them, I have conducted the research according to the terms that they have demanded of me. From the results I see that three of Ms. May’s mentions of Indigenous Peoples are about the Indigenous Peoples of New Zealand — the Maori people. Should the Green Party need help on this subject, in Canada, when one talks of Indigenous people, one means the First Nations, Inuit, and Métis. Not the First Nations, Inuit, Innu, and Métis as they have on their website. And not the First Nations, Inuit, Innu, Métis, and Maori as the Greens’ research office appears to suggest.

With no disrespect intended to the Maori, removing them from the equation reduces Ms. May’s interventions to 45, the majority of which are clustered around just a few bills. Broken down another way, the data the Green Party want me to look at instead of that which was presented on the parliamentary website shows that Ms. May spoke about the Indigenous peoples of Canada in committee on two different days in 2016, two days in 2017, seven days in 2018, and one day in 2019. This includes work on the Indigenous Languages Act, which I left out of my calculation as the Parliamentary website treated it differently than what it terms “Aboriginal peoples” — which is the category I did look at (as Indigenous people wasn’t a listed category). While Ms. Popuri claims that Ms. May can often be found “rushing between multiple committees,” clearly it is only very rarely to defend the interests of Indigenous people — and mostly when those interests overlap with non-Native environmentalists’ causes.

I don’t believe the impact of this number is substantively different than the number I relied on. When I look at Ms. May’s work on the floor of the House of Commons, as the Greens suggest is only fair, I once more reach the same conclusion — that Indigenous issues aren’t a major concern for the Green Party.

Looking at Ms. May’s comments in the house does not, as Ms. Popuri suggests, tell us a different story. There we see that Ms. May asked 103 questions during the televised question period — i.e., the most public part of what Ms. Popuri calls “the most public forum in our democracy.” Of those questions, there were four pro forma mentions of Indigenous peoples — including a tasteless analogy in which she likened the pipeline to the systemic program of cultural genocide that is the residential schools. Elizabeth May: “The government is prepared to spend far more on pipelines than on climate action. It is as though we really believe in reconciliation for Indigenous people but first we need to build a few more residential schools.” I can imagine few parliamentarians would keep their seats if they compared the Holodomor, the Armenian Genocide, or the Holocaust to an infrastructure project that they disliked — but apparently the cultural genocide of our people is fair game.

Only twice did May ask questions actually about Indigenous communities.

Ms. Popuri says it is unfair to use parliamentary data to say that “in the current parliamentary session, May has spoken about Indigenous peoples [in committee] just five times.”

Ms. Popuri insists that I use a search term they propose and draw conclusions from that. If I were to do that, I would have to change my sentence to say: “Of the 416 days that make up the current parliamentary session, May has spoken about Indigenous people in committee on just 12 of those days. Of the 103 questions she posed during question period, she asked substantive questions about Indigenous communities just twice.”

I believe that either phrasing is valid using the data provided — based on either parliament’s own tally of discussion topics, or the Green Party staffer’s recommended search terms. And with either data source, I believe the reader would come to the same conclusion — that the Green Party does not currently appear to care enough about Indigenous issues.

The clearest example of where the Green Party’s priorities lie is that their Parliamentary office had the time to prepare such an elaborate 1,400-word rebuttal to a single number in my article — when their website still contains their flawed “Vision Green.” As many in the Green Party will tell you, they’re a small party with limited resources. I don’t know if Elizabeth May approved or would approve of the squandering of those resources on the reply her office sent The Tyee, but I hope that at some point she will direct her staff to stop berating Natives and start engaging with us.  [Tyee]

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