Is there a Big Bear among the AFN candidates?: Vision should emphasize collective energies

Aboriginal Futures, Commentary, Joseph Quesnel

Moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt, in The Righteous Mind, argued that human societies have evolved a “hive switch,” by which the self disappears when vital collective energies pull together temporarily.

Haidt maintained that there are political uses in triggering the hive switch. For Americans born before 1950, he said, higher natures can be summoned by evoking the words, “ask not.” The words come from John F. Kennedy’s 1961 inaugural address. The full line is: “And so, my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”

Such transformational leadership is what is needed in the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) as it selects its national chief this July 18 in Toronto.

Unfortunately, the discourse among First Nations leaders – including the AFN – is often about what the federal government should be doing for First Nations rather than what they should be doing for themselves.

The candidates for national chief should look to Cree Chief Big Bear, an indigenous leader known in his day for placing his people’s needs and interests first, as an example. He resisted Treaty 6 because he wanted better terms for his people. He relented only when the starvation of his people became a real threat.  

During the housing crisis at Attawapiskat which dominated the news earlier this year, I and Pam Palmater – one of the AFN leadership candidates – were invited by CBC Radio’s The Current to discuss the issue  When it came to discussing responsibility for the housing crisis, she stated Ottawa was “culpable,” a legal reality, perhaps, but hardly a dignifying vision.

Such an attitude is not an exclusive indigenous problem, of course, as litigation and blame-shifting are endemic in our society.  

Many band chiefs have adopted a similar attitude of payout and shifting responsibility. With no incentive for bands to develop their own revenue sources, band leadership spends more time and resources chasing grants and programs than developing self-sufficiency.

The historic treaties hardly envisaged abdicating responsibility for indigenous welfare to other governments. While the fiduciary relationship that the treaties created proved to be a double-edged sword, as it created a protective relationship with the Crown, it also cultivated a sense of dependency. Having the Crown look out for the best interests of First Nations is positive; looking to another level of government for all of one’s needs is not.

That does not mean the Crown is excused from its constitutional obligations to First Nations or that they don’t owe reparation where harm was done, but bands need to look to themselves and each other, not Ottawa.

What’s needed is an indigenous version of JFK’s call to “what you can do for your country.” 

In the tradition of Big Bear, Akwesasne Grand Chief Mike  has said that more prosperous bands should help out communities like Attawapiskat to reduce their reliance on the federal government.

That inter-dependent, self-reliant vision needs to be re-captured by today’s leaders.

That vision was captured in the recent Crown-First Nations Gathering’s working plan. Through unlocking First Nations’ economic potential and creating high performance indigenous governance, the goal is financial self-sufficiency for First Nations.

Current AFN National Chief Shawn Atleo should be proud of the Gathering and not retreat from it. All AFN candidates need to articulate a vision that speaks to harnessing the collective energies of First Nations and turn on the “hive switch.”