National chief election matters


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In three weeks, a referendum on reconciliation will take place.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 07/07/2018 (1494 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

In three weeks, a referendum on reconciliation will take place.

On one side is business as usual. On the other side is radical change.

At stake is the future direction of Indigenous and non-Indigenous relationships here.

Perry Bellegarde

It’s election time.

The Assembly of First Nations, the organization representing 640 First Nations, elects a new national chief on July 25.

There are five candidates.

Katherine Whitecloud

There’s the incumbent: Perry Bellegarde from Little Black Bear First Nation in Treaty Four territory.

In speeches and interviews, he touts the $17 billion allocated to Indigenous education, child welfare and employment in the past three federal budgets as proof he should continue being leader.

His critics argue he has produced no substantive change, favouring relationships with industry and government over the environment and grassroots people. Twitter activists call him “Pipeline Perry.”

Sheila North

His main two opponents are Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak Grand Chief Sheila North from Bunibonibee First Nation and Russell Diabo, a Kanien’kehá:ka policy analyst from Kahnawake.

Known for her advocacy on racial profiling and youth suicide, North promises to fully implement the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s calls to action and empower local First Nations to enact their own affairs. Her slogan has been that “AFN is not a government,” meaning the assembly’s job is not to make decisions on behalf of First Nations, but to advocate that the federal government deal directly with them.

Well known on social media, Diabo’s platform is the most sweeping. His vision is a complete reform of the assembly into an organization that advocates for land and water protections, stolen-land reparations and refusal to allow First Nations to become municipalities of Canada, but rather full, actual, legislative partners. His slogan is “Truth Before Reconciliation.”

The other two candidates are Katherine Whitecloud from Wipazoka Wakpa Dakota Nation and Myles Richardson, former president of the Haida Nation.

Whitecloud advocates for the assembly to adopt a strong culture and language platform, while Richardson calls for the organization to become a conduit for economic self-sufficiency.

Assembly elections are always interesting litmus tests of federal-First Nations relationships. It’s very much a snapshot, held in a convention centre where emotions and speeches can influence voters.

It’s also a choice made by chiefs. First Nations citizens do not vote in the election. The assembly also does not represent the Métis Nation and Inuit communities — they have their own organizations.

The assembly is really a lobby group which advocates for — and sometimes delivers projects to — First Nations.

Still, the assembly is important. It is the primary venue the federal government uses to speak to First Nations. Some chiefs are coming up with new venues (Google “Treaty Alliance” to see what I mean), but for now, the assembly is what we’ve got.

So watching this election is worthwhile.

There are old things to watch for. In every assembly election, the national chief is usually accused of being too cosy or too distant from the federal government. There are dirty politics, side agreements and the fact most chiefs are men (the assembly has never elected a female national chief).

But there are also interesting storylines. Here are four things worth watching for:

First, note how much attention is paid to the election overall. Most probably didn’t even know the election was happening. The amount of attention paid — or lack thereof — is worth noting. It says how important Indigenous issues are in Canada. This may also explain why Canadians act so surprised when Indigenous issues become a part of the national conversation.

Second, the election is being held in Vancouver, near the growing resistance to the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline. Protesters are planning to attend the election and are sure to influence feelings on the floor.

Third, the Trudeau government is in the process of drafting long-called-for Indigenous rights legislation and has promised to implement it before October 2019. In a report released by the Indigenous-led Yellowhead Institute think tank, the legislation has been panned as “status quo,” a dump of federal responsibilities onto First Nations and a denial of issues such as self-government and land rights. Whomever can formulate a clear vision on how to respond to this legislation is sure to gain some support.

Fourth, the election is really a test on Trudeau’s record on Indigenous issues. Indigenous voters came out in droves for Trudeau, yet the Liberals have seemed to stumble their way through Indigenous issues. While some progress has been made on language rights and water advisories, the national inquiry into murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls is a mess, the Department of Indigenous Affairs is bigger then ever and Indigenous water and land protectors are being criminalized daily.

This vote is a verdict on how First Nations should deal with the Trudeau’s government’s erratic behaviour.

The bottom line is that the result of the election for national chief matters.

To everyone.

Even if only 640 chiefs get to vote on it.

Niigaan Sinclair

Niigaan Sinclair

Niigaan Sinclair is Anishinaabe and is a columnist at the Winnipeg Free Press.


Updated on Saturday, July 7, 2018 8:24 AM CDT: Photos added

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