The Commons: Starring Charlie Angus

The Scene. Charlie Angus is either the best kind of politician or the worst kind of politician. Or possibly both.

He’s either a man deeply committed to his constituents or a man determined to make a spectacle of himself. Or possibly—having realized that the former sometimes requires you to do the latter—both.

The NDP member of Parliament for Timmins-James Bay was once part of a punk-rock band and regularly dresses as if he wishes he still were. Today it was a black suit, navy blue shirt and silver tie. In full rhetorical flight, his voice is often a high-pitched twang—owing perhaps to both his punk roots and his current gig as the frontman of Grievous Angels, an alt-country band.

In the House he has become a restless advocate for Aboriginal issues and for much of the last year he has pestered the government to build a new school in Attawapiskat, a remote community located near James Bay in Northern Ontario. Students there have been taught in portables for the past eight years, their previous school closed in 2000 on account of a diesel fuel leak underneath the building.

This week, Angus announced a new development in the case—a series of government documents that, he claimed, seem to imply political considerations in the management of such school projects.

“Mr. Speaker, government documents reveal that when the Minister of Indian Affairs walked away from negotiations to build a school in Attawapiskat, the Ontario region had identified three key priorities: Wabaseemoong, North Spirit Lake and Attawapiskat, all because of serious health and safety concerns, and in the case of Attawapiskat overcrowding and badly deteriorated portables,” Angus announced during Question Period yesterday. “Yet, the minister told Canadians there was no evidence of any health and safety problems whatsoever. The documents reveal a campaign of misinformation to cover his tracks. What was the minister’s real reason for walking away from the children of Attawapiskat and the commitments made to build that school?”

Suffice it to say, the government disagreed rather vehemently with his interpretation.

“Mr. Speaker, I have never, well I should not say that, I have heard such a load of claptrap in my life, but not recently, as I have from this member,” declared Chuck Strahl, the Indian Affairs Minister. “He knows full well that this is the government that committed, in its recent budget, to build 10 new schools, major renovations around the country. We are building schools for first nations. He is voting against it. He is a glory seeker and that is all he is.”

“Mr. Speaker,” Angus shot back, “that was absolutely shameless.”

“Mr. Speaker, the evidence is already in,” replied Strahl. “This member of Parliament is a shameless self-promoter who will take publicity based on the backs of needy aboriginal people.”

The Speaker admonished the minister to refrain from personal attack.

“Mr. Speaker, I will not repeat what is obvious to anyone who watches the news,” Strahl said.

The Minister then stated his case. “What we have is a case where we work with first nations in Ontario, in the region, to set priorities based first on health and safety. That is why there are no other first nations besides Attawapiskat saying that their schools should be a priority. We work with first nations to set the priorities. I do not base it on which riding it belongs in; I base it on need,” he explained. “We are going to provide schools across this country based on need and not based on how much publicity the member in the corner can get.”

Immediately after Question Period, a discussion ensued as to which of the two was more deserving of an apology.

“I would ask the minister to withdraw his very offensive and insulting remarks to our member, who was simply carrying out his duty on behalf of his constituents and raising a legitimate question in the House,” NDP house leader Libby Davies said on a point of order. “To be insulted in that manner by a minister is something we should not allow to happen.”

“Mr. Speaker, I am not sure exactly what she would have me do. That question has accused me of lying and of putting children’s interests at risk by causing them health and safety dangers through putting communities on a list based on which ridings they live in. The accusations against me are legion,” Strahl huffed. “All I am saying is that what he does is not based on fact. It is simply based on what he could do to get into the media. That is the difference between what he has been doing, which I think is reprehensible, and the fact that if I am asked a factual question, I am happy to answer with a factual answer.”

Out in the hallway, Angus was pressing the matter with reporters. “Well I guess the question is, is why, why is he focusing this in some kind of personal fight against me?” he asked. “I’ve got children and families I know who are being denied a school in North America. Of course, I’m going to stand up and ask why.”

The discussion resumed this afternoon, Angus back on his feet during Question Period to pick-up the quarrel approximately where it had been left.

“Mr. Speaker, my question is for the President of the Treasury Board,” he began. “The allegations against the Department of Indian Affairs are very serious, because the documents are showing that they are identifying school priorities not on the issues of health and safety but on whether or not they are in opposition ridings. This would constitute a serious breach of public trust. What steps will Treasury Board take to ensure that children who are at risk on isolated reserves are not penalized for the partisan political games of the Conservative Party?”

Vic Toews declined to take this one and Strahl was absent from the House, so it fell to the minister’s parliamentary secretary to offer the rebuttal.

“Mr. Speaker, I am very surprised that the member opposite would ask that inflammatory question,” John Duncan said, sounding not entirely surprised. “We had committee this morning. We talked about this very subject. It is very clear in the response from the department that the priorities are set by the department. They do not consider political situations, and whether they are in opposition or Conservative ridings make no difference at all. The fact is that we do represent most of those areas, however.”

Suffice it to say that bit of wit did little to chasten Angus.

“Mr. Speaker, the documents completely contradict him and this issue is not about me. It is about children at risk in Atawapaskat who were involved in a project that was in an advanced state of negotiations when the minister killed it,” he chirped. “This House has seen a long litany of notorious pork-barrel ministers, but it has never seen a minister who would use his office to punish children in substandard schools for how their parents voted.”

At this, government house leader Jay Hill dispatched party whip Gordon O’Connor to have a word with the Speaker.

“What steps will the government take a rein in that rogue minister so that accountability is based on health and safety and the rights of children, and not on the gain of the Conservative Party of Canada?” Angus asked.

Duncan came back up. “Mr. Speaker, we understand that the member opposite has an interpretation that is far different from reality. We also understand the concerns of aboriginal children and we have expanded school construction and other spending because we do understand,” he said. “Since 2000, the department has invested over $5 million in Atawapaskat for expansion of the high school and temporary classrooms, and approximately $1 million a year for operations and upkeep of the schools. We are working with the community. Health Canada inspections in June demonstrated there are no health and safety concerns.”

At the conclusion of Question Period, O’Connor was up on a point of order. Deputy house leader Tom Lukiwski followed suit. They jointly accused Angus of making “outrageous” comments, undermining the reputation of the minister and generally “grandstanding.”

Angus had long since left the House.

A short while later, he could be spotted on the front steps of Parliament, posing for pictures with a group of Toronto students. The children were carrying boxes, apparently filled with letters asking the Indian Affairs Minister to make good on a promise to build that school in Attawapiskat.

The Stats. The economy, eight questions. The environment, six questions. Access to information, five questions. Crime, four questions. The CBC, military spending, nuclear energy, equality, Helena Guergis and Aboriginals, two questions each. Agriculture and immigration, one question each.

Vic Toews, nine answers. Jim Prentice, five answers. Ted Menzies, Helena Guergis and Lisa Raitt, three answers. Tony Clement, Dean Del Mastro, Josee Verner, Peter Van Loan, John Duncan and Rob Nicholson, two answers each. Peter MacKay, Gerry Ritz and Jason Kenney, one answer each.

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