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Nepinak's leadership gathering steam

AMC grand chief has rising profile after banner year

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Grand Chief Derek Nepinak of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs.


Grand Chief Derek Nepinak of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs.

OTTAWA -- Some time before lunch today, a small caravan of motorcycles will make its way through the city towards Thunderbird House.

They will carry with them the hopes of thousands of indigenous Canadians, plucked from the crowds on a journey that took them 11 days, spanned more than 3,500 kilometres and saw them stop in dozens of First Nations.

And they will be led by perhaps the fastest-rising star in aboriginal politics in Canada.

Derek Nepinak, 39, grand chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, conceived of the Treaty Freedom Caravan as an education mission on what treaties are, as well as a chance to light a fire under First Nations people to "burn away the haze" of misunderstanding, apathy and negativity among First Nations people.

"The Indian Act has no future for us. It's only through the treaty relationship I think there is an opportunity to move beyond the Indian Act and remember what the spirit and intent of our agreements were," he said.

Whether in his blue jeans and a black hoodie on his motorcycle, a suit and tie before a meeting on Parliament Hill or donning his headdress, Nepinak cuts an imposing presence, towering over most around him and delivering his message in a calm but tough-as-nails voice.

Many see this trip as more than just a push for treaties, but a sign Nepinak is setting himself up as a national leader and very likely preparing for a run for national chief when the position becomes available in two years.

Others think he is gunning not for the Assembly of First Nations' top job, but to set up a separate organization, led by Prairie First Nations, that specifically focuses on treaties and sets an entirely new stage for the kind of negotiations with the federal government that are typically led by the AFN.

Nepinak and other Manitoba chiefs began advocating for this in January and February when, during the height of the Idle No More protest movement, they rejected the AFN's leadership, which went ahead with a meeting with Prime Minister Stephen Harper against the objections of many communities.

Nepinak was a primary player in that group.

In simple terms, Nepinak wants the Indian Act ousted, replaced by federal and provincial governments living up to treaty promises made more than a century ago but that have never been fulfilled. Promised land was not all delivered, promised help with farming was often never given and instead policies were imposed that made success next to impossible by governments intent on assimilation.

The result is in many ways what we have today. Non-native communities thrived and First Nations people suffered, suffocated by Indian Act policies and decades of discrimination.

It's all well and good to say that was then and now is now, so let's just move on, but it is not that simple.

The ability of most First Nations to do what so many seem to demand -- to stand on their own -- is deemed by those like Nepinak to be possible only if Canada lives up to its treaty obligations.

Nepinak is clearly a leader among those who seek a different path to success than the seemingly endless negotiations with Ottawa over funding envelopes that ultimately have done little, if anything, to improve the standard of living of Canada's indigenous people.

Born in Pine Creek First Nation, Nepinak was both a sports and academic star. He was the starting quarterback of his high school football team and a swimming phenom who swam in the 1992 Olympic swimming trials.

He has a degree in native studies from the University of Alberta and a law degree from the University of Saskatchewan. He started a master's program in aboriginal governance at the University of Winnipeg, but left before graduating to become Pine Creek's chief.

Under his leadership, the band went from third-party management and being deeply in debt to self-governing and thriving.

In 2011, he ran for the grand chief of Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs on a platform promising self-government and the creation of laws, political structures and economic rights based on treaties and independent of federal control.

Less than a year later, he was being pressured to run for the national chief's job, but he declined. The pressure has not gone away, and Nepinak has a growing number of chiefs and supporters who'd like to see him play a much larger role on the national scene.

But before he can put power behind his treaty-implementation goals, he needs to establish a strong base.

This treaty ride is doing just that.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 17, 2013 A8


Updated on Monday, June 17, 2013 at 7:51 AM CDT: replaces photo

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