Who Speaks For Canada’s First Nations?
The Prime Minister of Canada, Stephen Harper, and Grand Chief Sean Atleo, of the Assembly of First Nations (AFN), met on Friday. Also participating in the meeting were a select number of other AFN chiefs, as well as, the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and the President of the Treasury Board. The purpose of the meeting was to begin serious and frank discussions about treaty and other issues between the government of Canada and its First Nations’ peoples.
Outside the conference, other chiefs from the AFN along with various supporters of the Idle No More movement held protests and demonstrations against the meeting. Some chiefs actually blockaded one of the entrances to the building where the meeting was to take place because they didn’t agree with their own leader.
In Saskatchewan, Idle No More organized its own meeting with various chiefs and Idle No More supporters because they reject the AFN and the leadership of the Chiefs.
Theresa Spence held a brief press conference in which she once again stated her objection to the fact that the Governor General of Canada was not attending the working meeting with the Prime Minister and Chief Atleo. She has been demanding that a meeting be held that would include the Prime Minister, The Governor General, all of the provincial premiers and all of the First Nations’ Chiefs.
By my count that is somewhere close to 620 people and one wonders just how much would be accomplished at meeting where more than 600 people were trying to be heard. Clearly Theresa Spence has no understanding of how Canada works and it’s probably time for her to consider stepping back and letting people who do understand get on with the business of trying to resolve issues..
The Governor General is not the Executive Branch of the Canadian Government nor is he the Head of State. The Queen is Canada’s Head of State and she does not meet with, nor enter into negotiations with, anyone. She delegates that to her prime ministers in Canada, Britain and other countries of the Commonwealth where she is head of state.
It is clear who speaks for Canada. The Prime Minister and his government represent and speak for the country. The question is: who speaks for the First Nations? Judging from the division and protests on Friday, it would appear that nobody and everybody speaks for them and that doesn’t seem a very effective way to advance issues or to get anything accomplished.
Along with her demand for a meeting of more than 600 people, Theresa Spence is also demanding a repeal of Bill C45. How does that work for First Nations? Some First Nations’ bands wanted the changes to the Indian Act with reference to leasing that were in Bill C45 so clearly they don’t agree with her. Which group does Canada try to please when no matter what it does some aboriginal group will oppose it?
She also wants changes to the Navigable Waters Protection Act repealed but that is not aboriginal-specific legislation. It is Canadian and Canada has every right to enact whatever legislation it deems to be in its best interest and the interest of all Canadians regardless of what Theresa Spence may think about it.
I had a momentary shudder early in the day when it occurred to me that in a different time and place there was a possibility that it could have been Theresa Spence meeting with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. It was a vision that was frightening enough that if it came true might make some seriously consider moving to the Falkland Islands.
The simple reality is that these are complex issues that have defeated Prime Ministers and some of the best and brightest of the First Nations for decades. It isn’t for lack of effort, ability or even good will on either side.
Chiefs like Phil Fontaine and Mathew Coon-Come were highly competent aboriginal leaders but while they accomplished some of what they set out to do, they were unable to unify First Nations behind one set of well-defined and achievable objectives.
And that is the single biggest impediment to resolving this mess.
No amount of blaming, accusation, protesting, demanding or negotiating is going to advance anything as long as there is no agreement among First Nations on common objectives and goals. It isn’t enough to demand respect for treaty rights because that means different things to different people both aboriginal and non-aboriginal alike.
In fact, it is precisely this vagueness that has worked quite well for some within the First Nations. As long as things weren’t too clearly and specifically spelled out, it was possible to always appear to be the victim no matter what concessions were wrested from the government and consequently they were able to continue to demand more.
First Nations will continue to undermine the credibility of some of their issues as long as they cling to leaders who refuse to acknowledge that some of the problems being faced on reserves are the fault of failed aboriginal leadership as Idle No More is now contending.
On Thursday, Chief Atleo held a press conference in which he stated that we were at the ‘tipping point’ and that it was a ‘reckoning’ taking place. I believe that’s true but it isn’t quite as one-sided as Chief Atleo would like to portray. He spoke eloquently about the need to put the past behind us even as he then detailed as many past wrongs as he could squeeze into his speech. He spoke firmly about leadership even as his own leadership is being challenged by First Nations across the country.
Chief Atleo is an intelligent and focused leader who clearly understands and has correctly identified some of the key issues that need to be addressed but if he cannot unify all First Nations in agreement, it is pointless to believe that he can negotiate effectively on their behalf.
It is not merely a reckoning for the Canadian government; it is also a reckoning for the First Nations. The time has come to clearly articulate with one voice the specifics of what is to be accomplished. That requires unity among the First Nations and a strong national leadership than can be the voice that represents and speaks for them.
Currently, there is as much finger-pointing at each other as is there is at the federal government.
In the end, it comes down to one singular question. Who speaks for the First Nations? Is it the Grand Chief of the AFN? Is it Idle No More? Theresa Spence? Or is it activists like Pam Palmater? Who speaks for the people of the First Nations and will champion their issues?
If it is all 603 First Natons band individually, this will never end. If it isn’t the AFN, then establish something else but before meaningful dialogue on a “nation to nation” basis, as Theresa Spence like to opine, can result in success; there has to be some resolution of the division within the First Nations itself.
And that, my friends, means deciding just who it is speaks for them because right now there are too many voices signing too many different songs and that does not lead to harmony; it is nothing more than discordant noise.
© 2012 Maggie’s Bear
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