As an off-reserve First Nations person it can sometimes feel as though Indians are like policemen. They’re never around when you need one.
In the urban centre where I conduct my business, there’s no Assembly of First Nations office even though they purport to represent me. There’s no Congress of Aboriginal Peoples office either.
When personal politics deems it necessary to engage in the bureaucratic two-step there’s no one around to help me. I dance alone. Yet at every big money, fiscal re-up national aboriginal organizations proclaim their role as advocates for First Nations people across Canada. It gets downright irritating.
Now, National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations Phil Fontaine has made plans to run again in 2009. Fresh off the career-making Residential School Settlement it probably felt like a good idea.
This despite the AFN’s constitution that limits a chief to two terms. Fontaine has already served three. Not since Ovide Mercredi wrote a book about himself has a national chief engaged in such blatant self-promotion.
But the AFN has become a largely irrelevant organization and it’s time for new leadership and a new vision. The 2006 Canadian census showed that 60 per cent of First Nations people live in off-reserve settings.
The Assembly represents some 600 First Nations reserves, or more accurately, the thinking of some 600 elected chiefs. When you seek re-election in the AFN you glad-hand with the chiefs, not the rank and file Indians.
The AFN represents chiefs. They do not represent me. They don’t much represent the people on the ground in First Nations communities either since it’s only the chiefs who get to vote or have a say in policy.
The AFN allows a certain number of delegates at its electoral powwows but they have no vote. Here in the hinterlands where there is no AFN office, those who represent me are nowhere to be seen.
When 60 per cent of your body politic exists beyond your reach, you can’t proclaim to represent them. You can’t tell Canadians that you serve a vital function and that your organization deserves the big fiscal budget.
You can’t sit back and listen to 600 voices when there are close to a million whose voice goes unheard. The majority of us never see a chief, a band council on a regular basis, or a national chief in particular.
I remember when I was a reporter for the Calgary Herald in the early ‘90s. National Chief Ovide Mercredi came to town to speak to the Calgary Chamber of Commerce at a luncheon.
This was in the days of the Charlottetown Accord and inner-city Indians wanted to know his opinion. He saw fit to devote 20 minutes to us. He gave the chamber of commerce more than an hour. Of course, then, there were only about 50 per cent of us living off-reserve.
Now we’re the fastest growing population in some centres. There are urban native professional groups in most cities where the university educated, corporate employed and business entrepreneurs gather to network and share ideas.
Conversely, there are the impoverished, marginalized and suffering. Our inner-city numbers cover a spectrum of lifestyles and situations that carry their own issues beyond treaty rights, land claims and negotiated payouts.
If the assembly saw fit to recognize those numbers they might see fit to restructure their mandate and become politically relevant again. Perhaps the elimination of aboriginal street gangs would become as important as land claims.
Maybe, the high price of daycare for working single mothers would rank with treaty negotiations. Or, adequate and accessible healthcare would appear on the same rung as reservation water quality. In 2008 there’s more to us as First Nations people than what’s prescribed in treaties.
So it would be refreshing to see someone recognize the fact that the Assembly of First Nations is spread too thin. It would be refreshing to hear a new, younger voice discuss the needs of urban aboriginals.
Even more so, it would be elevating to hear a new leader usher in an electoral and voting process for the clear urban majority and give them a say in the direction of AFN policy.
But that’s not likely to happen. AFN governance is Indian Act governance. The 600 or so Indian Act chiefs trundle out their issues and the National Chief trots those out to government.
It’s how the budget gets secured. It’s how the jobs get created. It’s how the outdated and largely irrelevant Indian Act maintains the status quo.
As long as the AFN persists in its Indian Act model of governance, just so long do the people it doesn’t represents suffer and stew in their urban malaise.
We don’t need a fourth-term chief. We need a new voice, a new vision and a new understanding.
Richard Wagamese is Ojibway and the author of Keeper’n Me. He won the Canadian Author’s Award for Dream Wheels and his new novel, Ragged Company, arrives in August from Doubleday.