Photo ops don’t make a great leader

I've watched the recent politics of my people with great interest. Given Barack Obama's success in the United States and the hope it engendered in people of colour across the globe, the work of native leaders has become fascinating for me.

I’ve watched the recent politics of my people with great interest. Given Barack Obama’s success in the United States and the hope it engendered in people of colour across the globe, the work of native leaders has become fascinating for me.

I’ve been around as a journalist covering native issues for 30 years now. In that time I’ve seen native leaders come and go. From reservation chiefs to provincial chieftains to national chiefs, there’s been a steady parade of change in the people who lead us.

Some have made great names for themselves: Ovide Mercredi, George Erasmus and most recently, Phil Fontaine. Others have labored behind the scenes without fanfare and without recognition. But because of them, native issues have continued to be pushed forward and our rights pursued.

You don’t have to command daily photo-ops to be a great leader. You don’t have to deliver great speeches; you don’t have to give interviews in glossy magazines or be a regular on TV talk shows. Those who work so steadfastly behind the scenes know that and they’re content to plod along and make the changes they can.

Because what leadership asks of our leaders today is the creation and maintenance of relationships. My people say that we are all in a constant state of relationship whether we know it or not. Everything is energy and each choice we make affects someone else. That’s just the truth of things.

Native leaders who are building relationships are the ones that will lead our people in the most effective way. Not just in their home community but with surrounding municipalities, corporations, small business and the man and woman on the street. If government is to be moved we need the help of our neighbours.

Everyone has a story. When you share that story you move from being a stranger to being known, to being understood. That’s what the world asks of any political leader these days – to move their people into recognition and acceptance. The time has come for a new breed of native leader – those who will step beyond the shadow of our politics and build relationships with Canadians.

Unity cannot exist when separation is allowed to happen. That’s what my people say. Native leaders who work to remove gaps in understanding are those who will truly lead. To create more disunity is to ignore the teachings that got us this far.

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, is out from Doubleday. He can be reached at richardwagamese@yahoo.com.

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