New Grand Chief Should Lead Reform: Leader must reject status quo

Commentary, Aboriginal Futures, Joseph Quesnel

The Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs will vote for a new grand chief on July 27.

Media accounts of the debates reveal the new chief’s response to flooding on First Nation communities is first on the minds of many First Nation observers.

Obviously, the flooding issue is very important given what so many reserves dealt with and are dealing with. However, the response should not be a preference for more federal dollars to deal with immediate after-effects (although that is obviously needed on many communities), but long-term solutions to the flooding problem.

Some communities, like Lake St. Martin First Nation, seek permanent remedies to their problems. They have been flooded virtually every year for 50 years. Ottawa has said it will fund a study “to immediately determine whether the present location of Lake St. Martin First Nation is viable in the long term and to assess the long-term flood mitigation alternatives for communities on Lake St. Martin.”

The Selinger government has said it is looking at 2,000 hectares of private land for a potential community move, but would need to work with Ottawa.

The point of mentioning this is to determine whether the new grand chief would be willing to look at bold solutions to recurring problems, or would he return to the default position of asking for more money with no strings. The time has come for bold innovation from the top.

The first question might seem administrative, but it’s fundamental. That issue is reform of the leadership selection system.

Right now, 64 First Nation chiefs of Manitoba elect the grand chief. Opening the system to average band members would change the dynamic of the AMC and the issues it focuses on.

In 2010, the Frontier Centre released survey results of First Nation respondents across Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta. In that survey, we asked respondents how they felt about opening up the vote to all band members. In Manitoba, 61% said yes.

The issues the AMC fights for should not only be chief issues, but everyone’s issues.

It’s essential to know how the candidates or the eventual winner would react to changes to the Indian Act, not bravado. Last year, AFN National Chief Shawn Atleo said he wants to replace the Indian Act and recently, he said he wants the Aboriginal Affairs bureaucracy dismantled.

If serious movement on this comes, how would the grand chief for Manitoba lead? Would he lead boldly and make hard decisions or retreat to the status quo?

Economic development and land ownership is central in Indian Country. The grand chief could play a lead role in encouraging Manitoba bands to engage in a discussion about property right on reserves.

Also, how will the new AMC grand chief lead on governance reform? Will he acknowledge the many problems with First Nation accountability and transparency or retreat to the status quo? One would hope he continues in the good work Ron Evans started on band electoral reform.

Manitoba bands need a leader who works with other governments and does not play politics.

The central question will be whether the new grand chief is transformative or the same old.