Why are native Canadians denied true democracy?
It is evident there is a genuine hunger out in Indian Country for democratic leadership.
The status quo is not working. Tribal governments are solely controlled by native leaders and the voices of the people are stifled. If we are to improve the lives of our people ending the poverty that plagues reserves, we need controls and leaders must adhere to them and all of the people must be able to cast ballots for their grand chiefs.
Many acknowledge that as well legislating governance regulations and the ability to enforce them, another key to establishing positive and much-needed change is giving the people back their voices in the decision making process so they can select leaders who will make needed changes.
In a recent survey of First Nations conducted in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta by the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, a whopping 74 per cent of respondents stated they prefer everyone voting to elect their grand chiefs rather than having them elected by their chiefs. In total, there were 1,086 respondents who responded to the question. The Frontier Centre was not able to obtain opinions from every First Nation as we conduct a voluntarily survey and some community leaders decline to allow us in.
First Nations were asked last year: "Currently, the position of grand chief or other regional First Nation leaders is chosen by a vote among the chiefs. Do you believe that allowing all band members to vote for such positions would improve Native governance and give the people a stronger voice?"
Regionally, the breakdown supports a more democratic system for electing grand chiefs. In Manitoba, 61 per cent of respondents responded positively to this proposition. In Saskatchewan, 83 per cent of respondents supported democracy and in Alberta, 74 per cent support the idea of elected leadership.
Very few changes happen in Indian country under the current system, in which chiefs elect grand chiefs to represent regions. A few years ago, a vague attempt to remedy this issue was made by Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak (MKO), which represents the northern Manitoba chiefs.
Then MKO Grand Chief Sydney Garrioch announced that northern chiefs would work towards changing the election rules to allow the people to select the best person for the job. Sadly, the chiefs who didn’t want to relinquish their power base outnumbered the leaders who knew changes must be made if we are to overcome current despair.
As we all know too well, reserves continue to struggle with a myriad of social problems. Currently a grand chief is not allowed to become involved in internal reserve issues unless requested by the reserve chief.
The late Francis Flett – then MKO Grand Chief – was a person I found to be open and honest when questioned. During a chance meeting with him in The Pas, Man., our discussion turned to a problem one of the northern reserves was going through.
I asked Francis why he didn’t try to help in his role as grand chief, and got the answer I expected. Making a motion of his hand over his head he replied, “I would be out of office just like that if I intervened.”
This problem speaks to the reality that the grand chief of each province is subject to the chiefs who select him. Their institutional interest is to protect Indian Act chiefs and the system. A similar observation is made with the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) which is also subject to the will of elected band chiefs, not band members.
Why are Canada’s First Nations condemned to Third World corruption within this otherwise proudly democratic and egalitarian nation? This question has haunted me for years.
The AFN National chief is correct in saying we must move out from under paternalistic Indian Act legislation, but we have much work ahead of us before that happens, we must clean up our own house and establish laws and regulations that reflect the will of the people. The start of this change is to actually allow First Nation citizens to select their grand chief or regional leadership. Only then will a hint of true democracy emerge for Canada’s aboriginal people.
In the past we were free people. So our past is our future.
DATA FROM SURVEY (1,086 RESPONDENTS ACROSS ALL THREE PROVINCES)
QUESTION: "Currently the position of grand chief or other regional First Nation leaders, are chosen by a vote among the chiefs. Do you believe that allowing all band members to vote for such positions would improve Native governance and give the people a stronger voice?"
Results (all provinces):
Definitely- 55.3 %
Perhaps Sometimes- 20%
Not really – 10.7%
Don’t know- 9.2%
Total in favour of all provinces (definitely, sometimes) of electing chief: 75.3%
Perhaps sometimes – 20.4%
Not really- 15.6%
Don’t know- 14.5%
Total in favour in Manitoba: 61%
Perhaps sometimes- 20%
Not Really- 8%
Don’t know- 7%
Total in favour in Saskatchewan: 83%
Perhaps Sometimes- 21%
Not Really- 12%
Don’t know– 8%
Total in favour in Alberta: 74%