To say the election of Terry Nelson as grand chief of the Southern Chiefs' Organization is going to be interesting is an understatement. The controversial First Nations leader has a knack for getting under people's skin and creating sensational headlines.
I suggest we wipe the slate clean and get off to a fresh start with Grand Chief Nelson. There are a lot of reasons this makes sense.
I know Terry quite well and I have worked with him on various projects over the years. He shares many attributes with another headline-grabbing activist who passed away last year, Nick Ternette, who was also a colleague of mine from time to time.
Both men have suffered from being grossly misunderstood and underestimated.
It wasn't until Nick Ternette's later years people came around to realizing there was substance behind the unruly hair, wildly waving hands and German accent. I recall one mayoralty debate in which Nick pretty much mopped up the floor with the other candidates because, quite simply, he could recite the policies, procedures and bylaws of city hall almost word for word, and he had some solid ideas.
One prominent First Nations leader came up to me following that debate and said, "I didn't know this guy Ternette really knows what he's talking about. I never met him in person before and I always thought he was some kind of kook."
Terry Nelson can recite the treaties, guide you through the Indian Act and he knows the ins and outs of things such as "contribution agreements" like few others. Business and political matters roll off his tongue. The guy knows his stuff.
But how many regular Canadians ever get to sit down with Nelson and get to know him beyond what they've gleaned from 30-second sound bites?
Even his own people have had difficulty rallying behind Terry.
I remember how he stole the show at the AFN leadership meeting in Calgary (when Shawn Atleo was first elected) by presenting a well-organized, substantive speech that surprised the delegates. They couldn't elect Terry, even though many agreed he was saying what really needed to be said. Many of the chiefs gave lip service to Terry's proposals to dismantle Indian Affairs, abolish the Indian Act and use the treaties to govern the relationship between First Nations and Canada, but they couldn't vote for him because he was going too far, too fast. Besides, there's that controversial public image.
There are always methods behind Nelson's seeming madness. The trip to Iran? Hey, indigenous people rarely go wrong when they can carry their cause on the international stage, no matter what global stage, and there is a lot of investment capital in Iran.
Speaking of economic development, Terry's quote: "We don't need the white man's money. We need a share of our own wealth" is something few would disagree with.
One of his first priorities at SCO will to be arrange independent, self-sustaining funding for the organization. Taxpayers will agree with that even though we won't be able to stifle Terry by cutting off funding.
No allegations of financial wrongdoing or mismanagement by Nelson has ever been proven.
Many folks didn't like that "militant" railway blockade Nelson organized when he was chief of Roseau River First Nation a while back. But just check and see how soon after the blockade the land claim worth $80 million was settled in favour of Roseau.
The issues are complex and space doesn't allow me to fully address the substance that Terry Nelson brings to the table but doesn't get sampled or swallowed.
People like Nelson and Ternette are often dismissed as gadflies but, in Nick's case, we realized we shouldn't have been shooing him for so long.
Time will tell with Terry Nelson.
Don Marks is a Winnipeg writer.