When I look back at the last 12 years of life as an aboriginal person in Canada, not much has changed.
Personally, my life has grown in leaps and bounds and there isn’t a moment of my present reality I would swap. But as a First Nation person in general, my political life is pretty much the same as it was in 1997.
That’s why it’s puzzling that there should be such a hullaballoo over the retirement of National Chief Phil Fontaine. He’s largely been the man in charge of my political future since then. Oh sure, there was the brief tenure of Matthew Coon Come but Fontaine has been at the helm of the Assembly of First Nations for as long as most Canadians choose to remember.
His departure caused a significant well of speculation. There’s the question of whether he’ll surface as a Liberal candidate in the next election along with the dubious list of declared candidates to replace him come July 22. The consensus seems to be that his tenure as national chief of Canada’s largest native organization was the high-water mark in native/government relations.
If that were so, why is my life politically unaltered?
See, the thing is this. Phil Fontaine was the national chief of a political organization that claims to represent natives carrying status, or Treaty Indians, in Canada. That’s a falsehood. The Assembly of First Nations is an assembly of chiefs. Pure and simple. Some 630 First Nations, or reserve communities, elect a chief and that body forms the body politic of the AFN.
The 2006 census showed that 60 per cent of First Nation people live off reserve. Most people dispute that figure as being higher given the large and transient native populations in metropolitan areas. But none of us living off reserve have a voice in AFN decisions. Only those 630 people, mostly men, have that right.
So Phil Fontaine does not represent me. He never did. The AFN does not represent me and cannot claim to ever have. What the AFN accomplished, or failed to accomplish, since 1997 was predicated on the vote of 630 people out of some 700,000 according to that same census. It’s a classic case of too many chiefs and not enough Indians.
In 1997, my political life could be envisioned simply as a member of a marginalized population. Well, I’m still marginalized and down right hamstrung in a lot of situations. The reserves I write about still suffer the same horrendous housing ills and there is still not adequate drinking water on far too many of them. First Nation people still represent a disproportionately high population in Canada’s prisons and there are abysmal unemployment rates on reserves across the country.
In urban areas where the majority of us live, those same problems of poor housing and high unemployment have followed us. Our median age (the mark where half the population is older and half younger) is 27—a whopping 13 years lower than the rest of Canada. Since 1997 we’ve gotten younger and there is still no help from our national leadership.
But hey, we got two apologies in a dozen years. The one had no heart in it and no teeth and in the year since its reading in the House of Commons nothing has been done. The second was delivered through a translator from a pope who read in credible English a few weeks later. Both served as high accolades for the national chief and the depth of his vision.
We also got a touring Truth and Reconciliation Commission whose wheels fell off before it left the curb. The AFN had its nose deep within that process too, despite the commission being bandied as an ‘independent commission’. As long as the residential school issue was Fontaine’s ticket into history there was never a chance of that holding up. In fact, if the last dozen years could be viewed through the lens of that one issue, and they will, then the Fontaine years were successful.
But for those of us without a voice, our political landscape remains as stark as it was then. Fontaine could not or would not address the AFN’s irrelevance in the face of First Nation political reality. That reality remains that the majority does not have a voice and is not represented. If we did, then treaty rights and land claims would fall behind housing, unemployment, education, health care and poverty in the order of things.
Don’t get me wrong. Phil Fontaine is a good man with a good and generous heart. He made a worthy leader for those he did represent. He just did not have the wherewithal to tell Canada the truth about his organization—that there are too many chiefs and not enough Indians.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org