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Can he fill Crazy Horse's moccasins?

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Terry Nelson is the modern-day Crazy Horse. And, like Crazy Horse, Nelson, chief of Roseau River First Nation, wants nothing to do with the white man.

Crazy Horse was a Sioux war chief who rode roughshod over Gen. George Armstrong Custer and his 7th Cavalry at the Battle of the Little Big Horn. Crazy Horse left it to chiefs like Red Cloud to deal with the white men who negotiated treaties.

Nelson ran for chief of the Assembly of First Nations in Calgary last week. His platform was, "We don't need anything from Ottawa and we can scrap Indian and Northern Affairs Canada altogether."

Nelson has often been maligned in the white media and his response is always, "I don't care what they think of me!"

He wasn't elected in Calgary, but he completely stole the show in cow(boy)town. He did that by offering a different approach from all other candidates, but mostly, by completely surprising the gathering with a dynamic (many said stunning) speech.

Nelson has always been outside the box. His ideas not only contrast with Canadian politicians and bureaucrats and the general public, his platform differs radically from established First Nations leadership.

That was all fine and dandy as long as Nelson remained a fringe candidate who had difficulty getting his message across (he tends to ramble, go off on tangents and he seems rather disorganized).

But this time, Nelson nailed it.

As expected, most of the more than 6,000 delegates in the audience were chatting among themselves for the first part of Nelson's address. But he demanded their attention by opening his address in Ojibwa (when somebody speaks in a First Nations language at these gatherings, one must show respect). Nelson also was the only candidate to incorporate visual aids, and the graphic pictures of First Nations poverty, the startling statistics, and the dramatic quotes were most effective.

More important, Nelson spoke from the heart. Clear, simple and direct, his delivery made it feel like he was talking to YOU. And he moved from point A to B to C in an organized and understandable manner. For the first time, this writer, who has heard Nelson speak on numerous occasions, can report that he got his ideas and his vision across.

By the end of his address, Nelson was being interrupted by thunderous applause. Most everybody acknowledged that he had the best presentation.

But almost nobody voted for Nelson. He got less than the required 15 per cent of votes needed to stay in the running beyond the first ballot. That's because while Nelson's ideas might make sense, the First Nations of Canada are not ready for the Nelson Plan.

In its most simple terms, the Nelson Plan completely dismantles the present system of using Indian and Northern Affairs Canada to spend Canadian tax dollars to live up to treaty obligations. Nelson would replace that with "a fair share" of royalties from resource revenues, which Nelson estimates at $107 trillion as he points to the concrete on a sidewalk that came from the Mother Earth we share. Nelson would use this money to partner with China or India or the United States or indigenous nations throughout the world to undertake economic development to rebuild First Nations.

The other candidates all had platforms that called for change in the existing relationship First Nations have with Ottawa. Shawn Atleo, Perry Bellegarde, Jean Beaucage and Bill Wilson all had clear ideas about treaty rights, land claims, social and economic development, education, health care and better infrastructure, and we all know that serious reform is needed to bring First Nations even near the living standards of most Canadians.

Atleo was elected and good luck to him. He will need it because, as Nelson pointed out, the assembly is almost completely dependent on funding from the federal government. Nelson reminded those delegates who longed for a Liberal government that might restore the $5 billion Kelowna Accord (killed by the Conservatives) that it was a Liberal government that slashed funding to the assembly from $18 million a year to $6 million after then-national chief Matthew Coon Come went to the United Nations to expose this country's hypocrisies. Nelson says you can't trust any white government.

Nelson proved that First Nations aren't ready to follow him when he got all the chiefs to wave their delegate badges to identify themselves. He then asked which had met with an international emissary to wave badges. There was none.

And, as many chiefs correctly pointed out, First Nations in Canada have sacred treaty relationships with this country, which has fiduciary responsibilities with First Nations to work together to resolve issues that are here and right now, and not pie in the sky.

Nelson gained a lot of respect and a position on the national stage through his performance in Calgary. While he remains a fringe candidate, his ideas are interesting, unique and, doggone it, maybe he just might be right.

Crazy Horse was cut down by a cavalryman's bullet after he surrendered to authorities at Fort Lincoln but he had made a statement by resisting white incursion to the bitter end. Terry Nelson got shot down by his own people in Calgary. But there were a lot of people walking around that gathering muttering, "Damn! That Terry Nelson guy sure said what needed to be said!"

Don Marks is a Winnipeg author, freelance writer and filmmaker.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 26, 2009 A11

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