Tory doublespeak creates confusion over Shoal Lake’s road to freedom
By: Mary Agnes Welch
Posted: 08/12/2015 3:00 AM
If you’re the fine folks of Shoal Lake 40 First Nation, you’ve got bigger things to worry about than how 22 words became the most parsed, dissected and argued over words in your long, hard history. But, for the rest of us, here’s the story of those 22 words and how they, in their tiny way, represent the worst of Canadian politics as it’s now practised.
Monday, Tory MP Joy Smith hosted a news conference announcing she was bucking her party and calling on the Harper government to fund Shoal Lake 40’s long-wished-for highway connecting the island reserve to the Trans-Canada Highway. Moments later, Natural Resources Minister Greg Rickford, facing a pitched battle to keep his Kenora-area seat, called Smith to cave. She said he told her Ottawa would build the road. The truth, as we would see, was trickier. But for a couple of hours, it looked like the isolated island reserve would finally see a century of gross injustice righted.
When it became clear, later Monday afternoon, Smith had exaggerated Rickford’s wilfully opaque commitment and federal funding for the road wasn’t coming, it sent reporters, indigenous activists and local politicos into a fluster.
We had to rethink headlines and rewrite leads. We spent hours arguing among ourselves about what Rickford actually meant because he refused to clarify. We called every Shoal Laker we knew for insight.
I imagine people at Shoal Lake 40 felt like they’d been through an emotional wringer, like someone handed them their Holy Grail then yanked it back. They started the morning with a valuable Tory MP on their side, finally. By lunch — wow, that escalated fast — they had a road. By dinnertime, after hours of parsing all 22 words, the federal promise to build the road was little more than a talking-point mirage.
Here are Rickford’s 22 words: “We support the construction of the Freedom Road in principle. That is why we are funding the design of the Freedom Road.”
Smith was too quick to self-congratulate and claim victory. We were all too quick to assume the Tories had finally done the right thing. But you can see why the mistake was made. Any right-thinking person would read Rickford’s bloodless, bare-bones statement and think: “Yup, those guys just committed to building the road.” And, anyone who covers endless government infrastructure announcements knows the phrase “we support” means “we’ll pay our third.” This is the impression the Tories knew they would leave — with Smith, with reporters and with the people of Shoal Lake.
Then, after an hour or two, we all did a collective hang-on-just-a-minute.
What exactly does “in principle” mean? For the city and province, it means they’re committed to paying their third of the $30 million cost of the road. But there was no mention of funding in Rickford’s 22 words. Maybe he meant, “We support the construction of the road, but not necessarily by us. Just the theoretical construction. Hopefully someone else will do it.”
Many, including me, clung to two words buried in the 22: “In principle.” During a disastrous visit to Shoal Lake last month, Rickford was repeatedly asked if he supported, at least in principle, the road’s construction.
He refused to answer, instead touting federal funding for a $1-million design study already underway. No statement I’ve seen from the Conservatives ever contained the words “we support the road in principle.” Those are the words Shoal Lake has been waiting to hear, the words Smith and a coalition of church groups called on the Tories to say. That, to me, was a small step forward.
But did funding the $1-million design study mean the Tories were always committed to the road in principle? The Tories now say yes, that we all should have read between the lines of the design study and seen that — of course — it naturally signals support for the road itself. But no one ever thought that. The leadership of Shoal Lake 40, among the most sophisticated political actors I’ve ever dealt with, sure didn’t think the study amounted to a commitment to build the road. So was Rickford’s 22-word statement really anything new? Were the Tories being deliberately vague, allowing us to think during the campaign they’d promised the road but giving themselves just enough weasel-word wiggle room to walk it back after Oct. 19?
Whatever the truth, we’re all colluding in a bunch of ruinously cynical bullcrap. What a waste of everyone’s time. Is this what public policy has become in Canada? Is this how we do politics now? Dissecting 22 obtuse, confounding words while people fall through the ice getting groceries, can’t drink from their own taps and watch what should be a model of First Nations self-sufficiency slowly atrophy?
Monday’s “in principle” debacle illustrates just how surreally controlled Conservative Party messaging is. The party knew Friday afternoon Smith was going to corner them on Shoal Lake come Monday morning. As a colleague noted, the Tories had all weekend to craft their response. They moulded and fine-tuned and finagled every one of those 22 words and repeated only those 22 words when asked for clarification. It’s how the Conservatives frequently operate, and it piled on to the profound mistrust the public, especially First Nations people, have for politicians, especially the Tories after their decade of doublespeak and obfuscation.
When the Conservatives finally announce one-third funding for Shoal Lake’s road — and they will — no one will believe them until it’s built.
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