First Nations Need Independent NGOs: Voices must be separate from Indian Act system

Commentary, Aboriginal Futures, Frontier Centre


Egypt is experiencing the pains of asserting democratic independence. Here in Canada, we have the ability to deliberate, and thereby avoid such tensions.
First Nations need their own version of a ‘democracy movement.’
Native people need more NGO’s, and no, that isn’t short for “b-i-ngo” either, as the joke goes in Indian Country.
An NGO is a non-governmental organization. An NGO is defined as, “activity of citizens in free association who lack the authority of the state.”
There are two issues with regards to First Nation’s people that bring this up. The first is the fact our present Native organizations often get tongue-tied or shy about speaking out on important native problems since bands must adhere to the federal government’s directives and objectives. To exemplify this point, organizations like the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) speak for the interests of the chiefs, not band members. They also avoid dealing with governance problems on First Nations. This has created a need for alternatives.
This is why First Nations need more than a few independent NGOs, unconnected to the Indian Act system, that can produce innovative ways and create independent, healthy communities.
We can have NGOs in the form of policy think tanks and pro-democracy groups. The whole idea is to give a voice to where there is currently none.
Looking at parliamentary committees, the only voices heard on Aboriginal issues are the well-funded, well-connected Aboriginal lobby groups. It is unfortunate. When reporters need a comment on an Aboriginal issue, they go to these established groups. Sadly, these groups represent largely the interests of leaders and the ‘Aboriginal industry.’
One example of an Aboriginal NGO was the First Nations Accountability Coalition. This organization arose in the Prairies during the 1990s and led the charge in supporting the First Nations Governance Act. It also opposed on-reserve corruption in general and fought for Native democracy. Unfortunately, the organization has fallen off the radar.
Our existing organizations are financed by government, so there are limits to what they can say and do. I recall AFN National Chief Matthew Coon Come stepping out and vying for more native independence of action during his term. Well, needless to say, out went his federal funding. It was taken away so fast that his head spun.
Native autonomy is imperative in this day and age. The day of taking control of our own destiny has arrived. Last year, AFN National Chief Shawn Atleo declared his desire to see the Indian Act replaced within three to five years. The federal government on the other hand refuses to create an industry of autonomy for our First Nations, but they will put up an industry that bandages our problems. Programs on reserves come to mind, as does the criminal justice system, which deals with First Nation dysfunction on a daily basis.
Native people will need to fill the vacuum that will be created when the Indian Act comes tumbling down. The vacuum of how are we to govern? If anything, it will take more autonomy than what the government wants to give, and it’s more than what our leaders are capable of. Lately the cry has been “down with the Indian Act,” but it will take more than a political voice to replace it. It will take a great effort, and it will have to start with grassroots community efforts. All great movements start this way.
We need not one, not two, but many new institutes that will buttress our independence.
These organizations will need to research and promote ideas of good governance and how to be self-reliant. Just the fact that something like this can get underway will be autonomy in action. The fundamental need for an independent voice has been stifled for so long that its absence has become an accepted mode of operation. This dysfunctional system of governance is the biggest factor of hindrance First Nations face.
NGOs are a key part of civil society that is lacking in First Nations.
There is nothing stronger than to have its people strive and overcome their domestic problems.
For Native communities, these problems are poverty, exclusion, and the lack of democracy and human rights. 
Civil society needs NGOs to pick up the slack and provide realistic answers to society’s problems. If Native people are to contribute, they will need to create for themselves truly independent, alternative community organizations such as NGOs. Independent community organizations will not solve everything about the “Indian problem,” but their presence will promote autonomy, strength, and opportunity.
And then we can say Bingo!