Soon there will be a new national chief of the Assembly of First Nations. For the majority of Canadians this is about as exciting as a byelection in Old Crow but for Canada’s Treaty Indian population, it’s significant. After all, the assembly claims to represent all First Nations people. That’s some 700 thousand, according to the last census.
Whether they do or not depends on believing that 633 First Nation chiefs represent the political will of all those others. Personally, I don’t think so. For one thing, the majority of us live off reserve. The best and brightest of us are urban dwellers more concerned with employment, education, daycare costs, and securing adequate housing than treaty rights or land claims.
Most of us never get to speak to a chief. It’s taken a horrific amount of wrangling to allow us a vote in band elections. Few of us ever do, given the geographical separation so the charade that is First Nation representation continues at the national level. The political agenda is left to 633 chiefs for whom there are no standards or qualifications to assume that role. You just have to know people.
So for argument sake, if I, as a card carrying First Nation person, or Treaty Indian as Canada defines me, actually had a vote in the process, which would I choose?
So let’s start with Terrance Nelson. He’s the vociferous Manitoba chief whose demeanour is all bluster and hard talk. He once said that ‘there’s only two ways to deal with a whiteman. You either pick up a gun or you stand between him and his money.’ Well, anyone who still uses the term ‘whiteman’ has no business seeking the right to represent me.
The face of Canada today is multicultural. There are more ethnic faces in Parliament than ever before and while Nelson berates racism he spouts it in his use of the term. First Nations seek inclusion and divisive terms like ‘whiteman,’ especially from one who deems himself a leader only serve to create more separation.
Then there’s John Beaucage. He’s Ojibway, university educated in economics and was the grand chief of Ontario’s’ Anishinabek Nation. While he promises a new AFN with urban people being given a significant say and a move to address First Nations’ poverty, he says it all in the oblique way of Michael Ignatieff. There’s substance, you just don’t know what it is.
“Together, through nation building, we will work towards eliminating poverty, building economies, empowering our citizens and our youth through unity with pride.”
That’s a mouthful of syllables. What it means is unclear. Terrance Nelson might accuse him of speaking like a whiteman.
Chief Shawn Atleo of British Columbia has been called the frontrunner. I suppose that’s because he’s not afraid to tell anyone who will listen how much of a traditional native person he is. He cites his lineage of hereditary chieftainship and how he was brought up as a traditional person. All of which is fine except that truly traditional people operate with humility and allow their actions to determine their standing.
For an urban native person who has to fight hard to maintain a connection to traditional practices and knowledge, such pomposity is dissuading.
Bill Wilson, also from British Columbia, would be a sentimental choice for me. He was there when First Nations met with the prime minister and the first ministers of the provinces on the Constitution in the early ‘80s. His was an acerbic and learned tongue. He was unafraid to go toe-to-toe with the leaders and his loyalty to First Nation people was unquestioned.
But it’s a different time and there’s less of a need now for strident, though eloquent, rhetoric. Wilson’s failure to connect with the voting chiefs at the last election was a sign of that.
That leaves Perry Bellegarde. He’s the former Saskatchewan vice-chief of the AFN and former grand chief of the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations. He’s university educated but his life’s work has been the upward mobilization of First Nation people. As an urban dweller chasing a university degree he understands the plight of off-reserve native people. He speaks clearly and directly about issues and concerns.
There’s no traditional boasting though he could rightly do so. As a committed Sun Dancer for 25 years and the recipient of two ceremonial headdresses from the elders of his people, he knows that traditionalism is built on a foundation of humility.
Though he is firm on the jurisdictional rights of First Nations he also believes that co-operation and partnership are the energies that unite rather than divide people. He carries a vision for his people and a vision for the country that is healing.
That’s my vision of Canada too: a rightful and equitable place at the table for all of us. If the legacy of former national chief Phil Fontaine is co-operation and compromise then Perry Bellegarde is the logical choice to continue that legacy. The AFN and Canada need a national chief that will bring us closer together as a country and as communities. If the chiefs truly want to represent me in Calgary, they’ll elect Perry Bellegarde.
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. He can be reached at email@example.com