Grassroots Natives Need An Elected Grand Chief

Aboriginal Futures, Commentary

If they were elected directly, the Grand Chiefs who hold office in Manitoba could become much more effective representatives of our First Nations. We currently have three, one representing northern bands, one for the southern Chiefs’ organization and another who heads the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs (AMC). A big sticking point for everyday band members is the fact that all three are elected by the band Chiefs in their respective jurisdictions and that they seldom, if ever, consult with their people to gauge who might best represent their best interests.

Older aboriginal people can remember a time when First Nations had almost no money, and hardly anybody wanted to be saddled with the responsibilities of a Chief. I grew up in the Fox Lake band near Gillam, Manitoba, where a good friend of my father, Wesley Neepin, served as Chief. In those days, the position was mainly honorary, so Wesley also worked fulltime as a railroad foreman for the CNR, his main income.

Many band members did the same, or worked in construction, or as trappers or fishermen. Almost everyone from this reserve had some form of employment. The only handouts available from the band that Chief Neepin handled were nets for the fishers, traps for the trappers and ammunition for hunters, along with gasoline for their outboard motors. Those were good times, and the community as a whole got along well. People from the town would venture on to the reserve when it held dances.

Back then, no easy money flowed from Ottawa, along with all its difficulties. Now, on many First Nations, factions battle one another for control of the band purse and the lucrative jobs that come with that control. These conflicts separate families, pit brother against brother and divide bands. The people still rely on the Chief for leadership and direction, but winning brings a lot of power, and the bitterness of the struggle provides a motive.

What happens to the losers? In too many cases, they face eviction from their homes and from the reserve itself. If you become a victim of internal band politics, where does a band member turn? That’s where a stronger mandate for the Grand Chiefs comes in. They could become peacemakers in these disputes if they had the backing of the people.

As things stand, that avenue of appeal is unavailable. Because they are elected by the Chiefs, the Grand Chiefs know very well that taking sides against them could result in their ouster from office. Indian country abounds with complaints and disagreements by band members with their councils. But when it means political suicide for Grand Chiefs to step in, they hardly ever intervene.

A recent chance meeting on one reserve illustrates the problem. Without following proper procedure, the Chief of the band had eliminated his political competition in an upcoming election by removing a member from the band list. When the Grand Chief happened by, the subject came up and his assistance was requested. “Write a letter to the Chief,” he suggested. The aggrieved band member explained that he had several times, as had his relatives, but the band’s staff claimed they had not received any correspondence, probably a lie. The Grand Chief admitted to him that his interference in internal band politics would prompt the Chief of this reserve to contact other Chiefs and that he would be gone.

Where does that leave the band member at odds with his leadership? The courts? That system does not really comprehend the roles of native leaders. Because they have time and again ruled that the Chiefs are not bound by common law, that recourse is almost never successful.

Native people need to elect their own Grand Chief directly, a strong individual willing represent them in these situations, not a lackey of local despots. The Grand Chiefs do good work negotiating new programs and funding from Ottawa, but the system restricts them to answering to the Chiefs who put them in office. The people often consider the Grand Chiefs as Indian bureaucrats who mainly reside in the city, part of a rapidly expanding phenomenon with band offices sprouting up all over Winnipeg.

Grand Chiefs elected by all the people will restore the long-lost respect that used to attach to their offices and dignity to a process too often characterized by corruption. Let’s have Grand Chiefs that are the people’s very own.

This article was originally published in the Winnipeg Free Press June 15, 2005.