FSIN Debacle Shows the Need to Heed Rules: Grassroots should play more role in organization

Commentary, Aboriginal Futures, Joseph Quesnel

Removing a sitting political leader is never easy. Nor should it be. But when it happens, it should be with popular support and involve clear processes.

Leaders always have enemies and those who seek to undermine them, but with popular support and adherence to clear rules, it is more difficult for factional or political interests to bring down leaders.

Sometimes the removal takes a leader by surprise, as happened when John Diefenbaker became fifth among nine candidates on the leadership ballot at the 1967 Conservative leadership convention. Diefenbaker had lost party and popular support.

In the case of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, he knew the opposition parties wanted to bring him down as they pushed a vote of nonconfidence on his minority government. Canadian voters, however, had a different opinion and gave Harper a greater mandate as the national leader.

Observers of the Canadian aboriginal world watched the recent downfall of Guy Lonechild, chief of the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations. He was forced to resign from the FSIN leadership and accepted a large payout as severance.

The FSIN is the organization purporting to represent First Nation communities in Saskatchewan. In practice, the FSIN mainly serves the interests of First Nation politicians.

Lonechild's unpopularity with the chiefs stemmed from an undisclosed drunk driving conviction prior to his election. Whether this sort of conviction disqualified Lonechild is not my point here. One would intuitively think removal-worthy offences ought to be more serious.

In our system, it is possible for leaders to be brought down when their integrity is questioned, but there still is an expectation that it will be the result of a fair process.

In the Lonechild case, the greater problem lies with how the chiefs sought to bring him down. Although many chiefs within the 74-community organization claimed all they needed was a simple majority to remove Lonechild, a recent Saskatchewan court judgment overruled their actions, asserting FSIN members violated their own rules in removing Lonechild, and pointed out that the FSIN subcommittee that removed him lacked authority. The chiefs went so as far as to lock out Lonechild, even after the court had ruled against them.

Many say Lonechild's removal was politically motivated. The FSIN was reforming the First Nations University of Canada, the scandal-ridden academic institution that had its government funding cut off because of financial irregularities and its board was full of political cronies.

Under Lonechild, the institution's board was cleaned up. Also, the FSIN was reforming the Saskatchewan Indian Gaming Authority that controlled Native-run casinos in the province. Opponents of those reforms, some contend, were behind the calls for the removal.

This case makes a mockery of First Nation political organizations. Good governance is not just majority rule. It involves the rule of law and responsible government.

When the FSIN did not follow its own constitution, it shows First Nation groups are not acting very responsibly. The chiefs involved in Lonechild's removal quickly hid behind the mantle of self-government, arguing they had the right to govern themselves.

Lonechild appealed to the court, but if the organization had obeyed its own rules, this would not be necessary.

Central to the problem is the lack of popular legitimacy for the decisions made by FSIN. The FSIN leadership is chosen by delegates who mainly consist of chiefs and councillors, and grassroots band members are largely excluded.

Of course, some chiefs may contend those FSIN chiefs are duly elected and speak for their people, but there is no indication that those communities support their chiefs in their FSIN selection.

A few years ago, the Frontier Centre conducted an exploratory survey of First Nation respondents about the issue of regional chief selection. We asked First Nation citizens on participating bands in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba whether grand chiefs and other regional leaders should be elected by the grassroots.

In Saskatchewan, 83 per cent of respondents said they support a more direct election.

More grassroots involvement would help ensure the FSIN or other organizations are not held captive by political interests or machinations of chiefs.

In the end, the FSIN troubles should teach us how to be very careful in how we try to remove offending leaders.