Most of the good things that have come to First Nations people in the past 50 years have happened because some Indian leaders had the courage to stand up and say "this is wrong," and fought to make it right. Great chiefs like Dave Courchene of Sagkeeng First Nation united First Nations into a collective force called the Manitoba Indian Brotherhood (MIB) and concepts such as "sovereignty" and "self-government," which were unheard of back in the 1970s, have become commonplace and accepted today.
It is often difficult to draw a connection between the work done by organizations like MIB/Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs and the impact this has on the daily lives of grassroots First Nations people.
The AMC is not set up nor is it supposed to deliver programs and services. That is the job of local education, health-care, economic and social development groups that benefit from the changes AMC initiates through its research and lobbying efforts.
But it is the work of such political organizations -- negotiation to close Indian residential schools and policies that led to Indian control over education -- that leads to community funding to open schools where local children are taught by local teachers with a curricula that reflect First Nations language and culture.
First Nations do not have the financial resources to undertake the kind of research that would allow them to make a proper case against the much larger resources available to big government and big business.
Funding to regional groups such as the AMC empowers them to stand up for the rights of First Nations people. This is in keeping with the concepts of self-government upon which we have come to depend.
It also keeps the First Nations voice at the bargaining table instead of outside blockading railways or occupying buildings.
Recently, the Harper government announced it is removing 80 per cent of the AMC's core funding, which, in effect says "political activism and lobbying are fine, but not on our tab."
Do the cuts make sense?
Canada's economy is faring well because of the enormous wealth this country has in resources such as oil, minerals and forestry. Countries such as China and India need these resources.
Chiefs in Manitoba have been working very hard to develop traditional land-use maps that prove the legality of First Nations claims to royalties and a fair share of profits and jobs from the development of resources on these lands. Chiefs have been gathering legal and political evidence to show how the federal government should not have transferred control of natural resources to the provinces through the Natural Resources Transfer Act in 1931 without consulting with and/or getting agreements with First Nations who have indigenous and treaty rights to these resources.
Corporations such as HudBay have a "duty to consult" with First Nations on all resource development and AMC chiefs are working to stop these large corporations from ignoring their duty to consult (or making just a token or cosmetic effort to consult).
All of this work takes a lot of time and money. Major corporations and big government have plenty of money to pay for lawyers and business experts and scientists and engineers and architects and other consultants. History has taught us that the side with all the power will try to get the best deal they can and that is rarely fair to the other side.
Long before there were groups such as the AMC, the resource riches of northern Manitoba created wealthy communities such as Flin Flon (mining), The Pas (forestry) and many others (e.g. Thompson, Lynn Lake). First Nations people were excluded from the training and jobs and the enormous return on investment that created the beautiful homes and paved roads and access to markets such as Winnipeg these northern communities have enjoyed.
Now, when we have the opportunity to start fresh and do it right, the federal government says it will not provide the financial resources the democratically elected leaders of First Nations need to defend their rights.
Think about it. If Mathias Colomb First Nation is paid royalties from resource development on its traditional lands (e.g. the $705-million gold and zinc find in Lalor Lake), these monies can be used to invest in mining corporations, which will provide training and jobs for the people, who can use this money to build nice homes and paved roads and infrastructure and access to markets such as Flin Flon, Thompson and Winnipeg.
They are doing this in Nunavut, where the mining corporations have agreed to turn over royalties of 12 per cent to the Inuit who are going to invest in mining corporations that will provide wealth for a better future. This is what the AMC and MKO and tribal councils and individual chiefs are trying to arrange for the First Nations in Manitoba. And this will be good for all Manitobans.
Won't it be better for all of us if 90 per cent of the people of a northern First Nation collect paycheques instead of social assistance? Then we can stop saying we should close down northern First Nations because it appears they have no economic potential -- a fair share of resource development will ensure the people can remain in their home lands instead of relocating.
Yes, it is regrettable that First Nations do not have their own money to spend on research and negotiations and we can say they should have developed alternative sources of funding for this purpose. But in a rich country such as Canada, we can surely afford funds to maintain an independent, alternative voice that can help us all.
Even if that voice disagrees with us, and loudly at times.
Don Marks is the editor of Grassroots News.