Ask Natives Not Native Leaders: New political caucus chance to change Aboriginal policy

Commentary, Aboriginal Futures, Joseph Quesnel

A Winnipeg MP will be leading an effort within the governing party to reach out to Canada’s First Nations.

Rod Bruinooge, MP for Winnipeg South, will be leading the six-member Conservative aboriginal caucus. Although this new organization will showcase the four aboriginal MPs within the government and their two appointed aboriginal senators, it should also serve to point aboriginal policy in a better direction. Beyond its partisan goals, let’s hope it creates more honest debate about First Nation improvement.

Bruinooge is exactly what is needed for this new caucus as he speaks honestly about aboriginal issues. He has spoken out about the accountability issues on reserves and is committed to grassroots empowerment of First Nations, not just leadership.

The caucus will benefit from having Senator Patrick Brazeau as a member, as former head of the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples (CAP) he stood for improving band accountability and for human rights on First Nation communities. He also envisioned new ways for First Nations to govern themselves after the paternalistic and oppressive Indian Act is gone.

At its inaugural meeting, the caucus members heard from indigenous author Calvin Helin, the author of Dances with Dependency. Helin holds nothing back in arguing for indigenous economic independence. He believes government dependency is the main obstacle First Nations face. He candidly identifies the democratic disconnect out in Indian Country. From the Assembly of First Nations to regional bodies like the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, the leadership is selected only by chiefs and not First Nation citizens. To remain relevant to First Nations and to not just speak for the institutional interests of chiefs, Helin argues these systems need to change.

When the Conservatives announced the founding of their aboriginal caucus, another Winnipeg MP led the predictable cynical response. Liberal MP Anita Neville called Helin’s talk "nonsense" and suggested that the caucus should have heard from the usual suspects.

"I’d rather them hear from the [native] leadership and not someone who is critical of the leadership," Neville said.

But, this is exactly the problem. Canadian political parties have been listening too much to the leadership, which opposes any move on band governance reform out of self-preservation. If you look at parliamentary committees studying bills affecting aboriginals, they are typically stacked with aboriginal organizations and leaders, not average band members. This is because band members do not have the money and organizational clout to present their views at these hearings.

When Helin’s book came out in 2006, it was seen as a breath of fresh air by many indigenous people. The book became a best seller because it spoke the truth and it presented a positive, realistic plan for change.

Helin is exactly the type of person the government should be listening to. He presents an independent view of the situation as he does not need to protect the status quo. Moreover, this new caucus would be well-served by visiting Manitoba where it could see the unique challenges facing First Nations here and hopefully that would be reflected in this government’s policy.