16 September 2019

More to the Trimper Affair #nlpoli

The most important implications of the Trimper Affair escaped notice.

In the midst of all the public commentary about the Trimper affair last week – strikingly racist as it was in some respects – even the people ostensibly supporting the Innu missed the most obvious and most meaningful aspects of it.

The most striking was the skillful way in which the Innu Nation organization obliterated Perry Trimper as a political force and imposed its will on southern politicians from all parties.  The Innu Nation project against Trimper displayed a sophisticated understanding of how the media works in the province, a solid appreciation of the weaknesses of the governing Liberals under Dwight Ball, the organizational cohesion to implement a simple but effective plan, and, above all the will to do it.

Equally compelling to watch was the speed with which the Premier’s Office slit Trimper’s political throat.    While southern newsrooms and Twitterati neither knew about nor cared about the wider context of the story that unfolded in front of them last week, Dwight Ball and his staff either knew or ought to have known.

After all, Ball had brought Trimper back to cabinet only the week before he resigned.  The environment side of Trimper’s portfolio would bring him in direct contact with the sensitive issue of Muskrat Falls and others throughout Labrador and Newfoundland that would involve dealing with organizations representing Indigenous people.

Certainly, Ball and his staff would have noticed that Trimper took – literally – a dozen votes out of Sheshatshiu in the general elections.  Of the two polls in the community, Trimper got five in one and seven in the other.  His Conservative opponent garnered 238 votes.  An unaffiliated candidate took three votes in each poll. 

Ball and his staff, admittedly down by three key people since the election, should have anticipated problems might come up with Trimper.  Yet, Ball brought him back to cabinet and at the very first sign of trouble, Ball disowned his minister. Ball’s statement issued Thursday evening said - in effect – that Trimper did not represent the government.  The statement was blunt and simple.

At that moment, Ball had made it plain Trimper no longer had his confidence.  Trimper should have resigned that evening.  In truth, Ball should have fired him.  The result would have been the same. No minister can survive if the Premier publicly states that he has no confidence in the minister or that the minister does not speak for the government. 

There is a pretense in government statements these days that ministers can only speak about their own portfolios.  The legal and constitutional truth is that ministers can and should be able to speak to any issue on which government has decided.  It is supposed to be their decision as part of the cabinet.  But this pretense about individual portfolios isn’t about protecting individual ministers from misstatements or preventing them from making conflicting messages.  The pretense in Newfoundland and Labrador reinforces the point that since 2003 only the Premier is permitted to either speak about or decide anything on behalf of the whole government.

That pretense doesn’t really apply in this case but the people who wrote Ball’s statement for him didn’t care about that nicety.  So, they threw Trimper back under the bus the Innu were driving.  Ball quickly offered to meet with the Grand Chief of the Innu Nation who told reporters that he and other leaders of the community would meet over the weekend to see if they needed Ball to do anything else to atone for Trimper’s comments.

Then there was the response of the other political parties in Newfoundland and Labrador.  Conservative leader Ches Crosbie said in a written statement that it “is essential that the regional minister have the confidence of the communities he represents.  Trimper clearly lost the ability to work with the Innu, most of whom live in his district of Lake Melville.”   Crosbie also said that “Premier Ball must yet address the question of whether Trimper should remain in the Liberal caucus.”

This is worth pulling apart since Crosbie is not merely tossing out some inconsequential words.  He is the leader of the official opposition and could become Premier without an election. 
So here we see that Crosbie believes cabinet ministers in Newfoundland and Labrador represent regions of the province.  Those regional ministers “must have the confidence of the communities” they represent.  And, by obvious implication, if just one of the communities loses confidence in the minister, then the Premier has no choice but dismiss the minister immediately. 

The provincial New Democrats said something very similar.  VOCM reported that NDP MHA Jim Dinn felt that “it’s not about what he thinks should be done it’s about what the Innu Nation and other Indigenous groups feel should be done.”  Now that’s not a direct quote from Dinn.  It’s VOCM’s paraphrase.  The sentiment is like what CBC’s Megan Roberts also reported: “it’s not up to [Dinn] to say whether or not the comments were racist, that was decided by the Innu. [sic]”

Being the Premier is not the same as being a union boss – where you get to put your members’ interest against the public interest in knowing who is getting public money  – or being a slip-and-fall injury lawyer where you can represent one group of abused people at the deliberate exclusion of others.  The situations government faces are complex and the approach to one incident may have significant ramifications for others within the same general area.

Most basically, though, it is a significant thing for political parties to concede that the right to determine who sits in cabinet is not something for elected representatives of the entire population but for third party interest groups.  Arguably both the NDP and Conservatives – but certainly Conservatives - made precisely that statement of policy in their response to the Trimper affair. Such a policy has clear implications for democracy in Newfoundland and Labrador.

What is certain on Monday is that the Innu Nation has the Premier and the provincial on the back foot in dealing with issues affecting the Innu.  The other parties are in the same position.  While that may mean little to the fallout from the Trimper affair, the Innu may have other issues they can now advance with much greater influence.

On Sunday, the Innu Nation tweeted comments critical of the recent agreement between the Government of Canada and the NunatuKavut Community Council and its admittedly broad land claim area. The agreement is only with the federal government but when it comes to land claims, the provincial government, is inevitably involved.

What’s particularly noteworthy about the Innu Nation tweet is the references in the hashtag to race claiming and self-indigenization.  Those are aimed directly at the NCC claim.  The NCC claim map, like similar claims made by the Innu Nation and by the Labrador Inuit is that they represent far more land than comprises the final settlement area.  There is also overlap between claims from one group to another.  Part of the land claims process is a reconciliation of those overlapping claims.

The Innu Nation tweet rightly notes that the Innu Nation land claim is now 40 years old or more and is not significantly closer to resolution now than it was two or three decades ago.  By contrast, NCC has made considerable headway with its claim in a mere seven years.  The MOU with the Government of Canada is a potent symbol of the NCC success.

That’s why the terms race shifting, and self-indigenization become important.   They implicitly assert that the NCC claim is invalid on the face of it since the MCC members are not Indigenous people.  They are fakes, supposedly.
Darryl Leroux is a professor at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax.  His website – raceshifting.com – asserts that the “so-called “Eastern Metis” are … an example of what is referred to as race-shifting or self-indigenization, a process that, in the case of this research project, involves white French-descendants inventing and claiming an “Indigenous” identity, often in opposition to actual Indigenous peoples.” Macleans.ca gave Leroux space to present his arguments in a recent article along with his colleague Adam Gaudry of the University of Alberta.

Leroux is concerned only with those of French descent, while NCC represents people primarily of mixed ancestry from England, Ireland, or Scotland.  Still, you can see the idea that is also echoed in the Innu Nation tweet that the NCC claim is illegitimate.

What you should also note is that the issue of race raised by the accusation against Perry Trimper is about a lot more than what one politician did or did not say. The issues are significant.  They are like issues occurring across Canada or the rest of North America.

One of the major difficulties in getting to grips with the issues raised by the Trimper affair is that most people who were talking about Trimper last week – the white, southern politicians, media, and Twitterati  - are framing their understanding of everything, including the terms “race”  and “racism” from news from the United States.  They are oblivious to what is happening across Canada and, to be frank, the fact it is not happening in St. John’s means that they are oblivious to what is happening in this province as well.  They ignore issues affecting or involving both Indigenous and non-Indigenous Labradorians whether it is Muskrat Falls, future economic development in Labrador, land claims, or the even notion of what it means to be a Newfoundland or Labradorians.  

The conflict between NCC and the Innu Nation is just one of things completely unseen in any description of the Trimper affair that reduces it down to a person and a conversation or that proposes a solution can be found just in “listening” or making someone attend a cultural sensitivity class.  It requires an understanding of the province, its history, and all the people who have lived here for millennia or for a few weeks that no one seems interested in developing.  The result may well be that, in the absence of leadership - in the broadest sense of that term - the resolution to conflicts will be imposed on the people living here based on entirely inappropriate approaches. Imposed solutions would be just cultural and social colonialism and the hypocrisy of that, at the very least, should be obvious to everyone.