As First Nations people stand up and demand respect of their rights across the country, they are running into resistance not only from the government and developers. Their own leaders sometimes prove to be their biggest obstacles.
Last summer’s confrontations at Gustafsen Lake and ipperwash Provincial Park saw First Nations leadership siding with the government and police against members of their own communities.
Is this the way of the future? Tony Hall, Professor of Native American Studies at the University of Lethbridge, has some provocative insights into the whole system of Native leadership created under the Indian Act.
The Nation: Do you think there is a lack of democracy in First Nations communities?
Tony Hall: There is a form of democracy that is modelled after municipal governments. The Indian Act set up Chiefs and councils as administrative extensions of the Department of Indian Affairs. It’s a kind of democracy that stresses a numerical show of hands rather than consensus. It’s a kind of democracy that gives the power to the biggest group and allows the bigger group to force its power on the smaller group.
It’s not democratic at all in the sense that it centres the real power in the minister’s hands and the minister can then delegate that power to Indian agents or the Chief and council. And of course, the Minister of Indian Affairs isn’t elected by Indian people or accountable to them in any way. So in that sense, the system is totally undemocratic.
There is some voting that takes place to choose the Chief and council, but the Chief and council’s power is power given to them by the Department of Indian Affairs and ultimately the Chief and council are accountable to the Minister of Indian Affairs, which holds a veto power.
And of course, most Indian groups don’t have a strong Indian economy so the lines of accountability mostly follow government funding. Bands get their funding from federal agencies and they are accountable to their funding source. It was set up as essentially a training ground for municipal government for the days when reserves would become self-governing like municipalities.
But it’s an approach to democracy that stresses numerical preponderance. There’s very little respect for minorities within Indian communities. And it overpowers the older, traditional forms of choosing Indian leaders.
This is a tremendous problem all up and down Indian Country as groups here and there increasingly see the Indian Act for what it is—a residue of a very old colonial system. People appreciate that the Indian Act system of choosing leadership has no basis in Indian Country, in Indian tradition, in the Indian way of doing things. And people are looking for ways to legitimize leadership, legitimize decision-making that draw from Indian sources. The Mohawks, for instance, have their Longhouse government and their Great Law, and many people in Mohawk Territory have never accepted the Indian Act as being legitimate.
We saw last summer at Gustafsen Lake, the stand there began with the Sundance and obviously there was an effort there to try an Indian way of doing things, an Indian ceremony as the basis for a political stand protecting land that the people saw to be sacred.
But those people were then denounced by the local First Nations governments, too.
Yeah, there’s quite a growing tension in Indian Country in that this whole structure of Indian Act government gives rise to organizations like for instance the Assembly of First Nations. The National Chief of the AFN is chosen by the Indian Act Chiefs and so the present system legitimizes a whole set of leaders. It empowers them with federal funding to do things in their communities. And in a sense, the people involved in that system have a strong vested interest in the status quo.
Many leaders in the West, for example, will talk about the importance of treaties and hold up treaties as the basis for their relationship with the government. But their own positions of power in their communities depend not on treaties but on the Indian Act. So there is a strong vested interest that the leaders have in the present way of doing things. When a group like those at Gustafsen Lake took a stand, of course many of them were from other areas. As at Wounded Knee in 1973, they were not all local people; they were not all Shuswaps. They were Native people and others from throughout North America and of course in asserting the sovereignty of the indigenous way of doings things, they were calling into question the Indian Act governments in the area.
So not surprisingly, the local Chief and council were not supportive and in fact saw it as a threat. And this split, this tension in Indian Country was really heightened when the National Chief of the AFN seemed to be condemning the Gustafsen group and accepting the characterization of them as renegades, terrorists, law-breakers. This wouldn’t have been done, for instance, by (AFN founder) George Manuel, who was himself a moderate and didn’t take militant stands with respect to blockades or arms. But on the other hand, he was careful when episodes at Anishinabe Park, when the Ojibway Warriors’ Society occupied the park, not to condemn them and to make it clear that the frustrations that drove people to take that kind of stand were very real.
In a sense, the militants create a political context which strengthens the hand of the moderates. I believe in James Bay, the American Indian Movement tried to get involved in the land issue there and Billy Diamond was quite adamant that AIM should stay out of it. So this is an issue that has a history in Cree Country. The James Bay people were in a sense in a strong bargaining position because their lands are valuable and the provincial government desperately needed some kind of Indian agreement to give some appearance of legitimacy to their project. So the James Bay Crees had something to negotiate with.
But you have to appreciate that in Indian Country, increasing numbers of people grow up in the city and have little contact with their families sometimes. And the people in the city are the most dispossessed, the most disfranchised, the most marginalized. The people in the cities haven’t much to bargain with and historically that has been an important centre for groups like the American Indian Movement. Prisons have also been a place where the militant side of the movement takes shape—like the effort to get sweatlodges and to get spiritual leaders recognized as having the same status as clergymen, Christian priests or rabbis. The struggle for religious freedom within the prisons was important for the genesis of the American Indian Movement.
So AIM I guess has been a coalition of urban militants and some of the more traditional people on the reservations, especially in the United States. And I think we’re seeing that type of coalition developing in Canada.
At the same time, do you see the leadership becoming more conservative?
Perhaps I could talk a little bit about what happened in 1973 and I think there you have a kind of archetype for what is happening now in Canada. The American Indian Movement chose the Pine Ridge reservation and Wounded Knee—the site of the last major massacre of the U.S. Army—as a symbolic site to make a stand and to draw attention to the lawlessness of the American government in not respecting the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868. They ended up by condemning the band government of Dick Wilson, arguing that it was created by the Indian Reorganization Act, an American law in 1934 that created the basis for self-government in American Indian reservations. They said Richard Wilson and his people were subject to nepotism and favouritism and were hogging the federal funds for themselves and their families. The federal funding was only benefitting a favoured few with jobs in the band administration and access to government programs.
So Richard Wilson condemned AIM as a radical group. Of course, many of the members were not from there and there was a virtual civil war on the Pine Ridge reservation and dozens of people were killed, mostly from AIM. It’s now well-documented that the tribal police of Richard Wilson were getting help from the FBI, getting funds and arms from the American government, which was very hostile to the American Indian Movement.
I think you’re seeing that type of tension developing in Canada. I think you’re going to see more of it—a distrust at the grassroots with the Indian Act leadership and the structure of Indian organizations—the tribal councils, the Assembly of First Nations. There’s a growing view that this whole system of representing Indian people doesn’t really come from Indian people. It’s imposed by the federal government on Indian people and ultimately doesn’t serve Indian interests. It serves the interests the few people working in the system—the negotiating class— and they develop a vested interest in the system. To put it bluntly, I guess there’s a sense that Indian people are being co-opted, bought off, transformed into “apples.” And that in order for true self-government to develop, it has to spring from authentic Indian sources— traditional ways that Indian people made decisions in the past. And that has to be the basis, the starting point for the liberation movement.
That liberation movement has to deal with the reality that some Indian people are turned against their own people by a federal system that favours a privileged elite but has very little to offer the great mass of Indian people.
Do you think the federal government is using the increased frustrations of Native people to strengthen that privileged elite through the so-called self-government process?
I think there is a failure on the part of the federal government to appreciate the legitimacy of some of the frustrations in Indian Country. The tendency is to stigmatize and label the dissident voices as mavericks and malcontents, and imply that their only problem is they didn’t get elected themselves. Their option is simply to become a Chief or a councillor. But in fact, what we’re seeing is growing awareness in Indian Country that the system itself is flawed, the system itself works against Indian ideals and interests, and what is needed is new systems, new approaches to leadership that draw from Indian sources.
What we saw last summer at Ipperwash and Gustafsen Lake was a very simplistic condemnation of the groups involved in the standoffs. And there was a complicity between the Indian Act leadership and the media to encourage the media to characterize the dissident voices as far-out cult figures who have no real basis for their grievances. The media have a great deal of trouble interpreting what’s really going on, and I guess the more people are marginalized and effort is made to discredit them, the more dangerous and explosive the situation becomes because we’re not dealing with the real issues.
It seems to me there is a real problem with the Assembly of First Nations right now. The AFN was created at the time of the patriation of the Canadian Constitution in the early ’80s to meet the political challenges of those days. You have a National Chief of the AFN who is now treated more or less like an Indian premier and the implication is that Indians collectively constitute a kind of province. Of course, after he negotiated the Charlottetown Accord, he agreed to bring about the ratification of that accord in Canada and among First Nations. He faced a great setback when most First Nations communities did not vote on the Charlottetown Accord, let alone ratify it. Only a small number of registered Indians voted and, of those who did vote, 62 per cent said no.
It points up the distance between First Nations citizens at the grassroots and the leadership of the AFN. I suspect the major reason people said no is that they didn’t understand it; they just instinctively didn’t trust the process. In the West, some treaty people said the very spirit and format of the negotiations betrayed the spirit and intent of the treaties, which are nation-to-nation agreements. Questions arose here in Blackfoot Country about why a Cree is speaking for the Blackfoot people;
The long and short of it is that the Charlottetown Accord was rejected in Indian Country and the leadership of the Assembly of First Nations is to a large measure discredited. The National Chief in talking to the federal government isn’t taken that seriously. So it seems to me there needs to be a radical rethinking of what an organization like the AFN is all about and how it can credibly represent the people it’s supposed to be representing. One approach might be to elect the National Chief of the AFN by all Indian citizens and that might give the person a stronger mandate. And the process of choosing that leader might politicize First Nations citizens. On the other hand, you’d have to ask yourself who would be in a position to campaign in that way and would have the money to do it. There might be a fairly narrow elite with the resources to mount that kind of campaign. Maybe there would have to be special provisions to give people the financial resources to participate in that process.
But in any case, the last referendum points out that the larger Canada question is really on the table and we are in a process of fundamentally redefining the nature of Canada. And there has to be voices there—strong, clear, eloquent voices—insisting that Canadians recognize the existence of First Nations, the rights of First Nations, their treaties and this has to be reflected in the way Canada sets up its own institutions of self-government—its courts, its legislatures, its taxing institutions and on and on and on. In order for First Nations to take their rightful place in Canada, there has to be a fundamental restructuring of all Canadian institutions.
So where are the voices to insist on that recognition? There is a problem with the National Chief. Often, he makes important, valid points, but there’s a credibility problem.
What do you think are the chances of achieving that kind of radical change given that it would be such a direct threat to Canada’s existing political and economic system?
It’s such a difficult moment. There is a strong vested interest in Indian Country in an orderly transition that makes the Indian Act Chiefs the key architects of the transition. And there’s a growing impatience and distrust at the grassroots with that process. Where you do have groups that have something to say on this issue, for instance the group at Gustafsen Lake or the Stony Pointers who didn’t trust the band council and went outside the Indian Act structure and made a stand in a provincial park during which one man was killed by the Ontario Provincial Police.
It’s tragic when these episodes happen. Something important is being announced here and instead of the message being properly reported by the media you get a sense that anyone who questions the existing structure is simply a shit-disturber, a malcontent, a lawbreaker. Also, there is no pan-Canadian Indian media. It’s very, very hard for one Indian group to find out what’s going on in another part of the country. So what you have is all kinds of vocalized discontent but very little capacity to try to show the bigger picture and I guess the people in the CBC or the Globe and Mail I don’t think appreciate that part of their responsibility is to interpret for Indian people what’s going on in various parts of the country. There is very little opportunity for that kind of dialogue to develop. There is a need for First Nations citizens throughout the country to be involved, hundreds of thousands of people not just a few hundred chiefs.
One of the legacies of the Indian Act is Indian people have often not been able to govern their own lives, have had even the government of their own lives taken away from them by churches, boarding schools, Indian agents. So people have been alienated from their ability to govern their own lives, let alone the lives of their communities, let alone the lives of their First Nations, let alone the lives collectively of all the First Nations. There’s a tremendous amount of disenfranchisement, alienation—Indian people who are not involved in constitutional politics, people who are not involved in all the controversies of their First Nation. And the big issue is how can that group be drawn back into the process and it seems there is a tremendous responsibility here for education.
Leadership, rather than keeping power for themselves, have a tremendous responsibility to go out and find the First Nations citizens who are all over and develop a language and a level of awareness and understanding and knowledge so the grassroots people can begin to contribute to the larger discussion—to develop a process truly based on the principle of liberating First Nations rather than replacing one top-down system with another top-down system, replacing Department of Indian Affairs bureaucrats with Indian bureaucrats. This process may leave the great mass of Native people even worse off because at least when you’re oppressed by an alien society it’s better than being oppressed by your own people.
At least you know who the enemy is.
Yeah, a colleague of mine speaks of watching Indian communities get their own jails and this being taken as a kind of mark of achieving a certain level of self-government. It’s interesting to contemplate how this movement went in Africa. The movement of decolonization and aboriginal self-government can be thought of as part of the larger movement internationally toward de-colonization. All of Africa and different parts of Asia used to be organized as outright colonies of European powers. The indigenous people in those societies could no longer tolerate being governed by outsiders, have their resources exploited for European interests.
After the Second World War, there was a movement toward de-colonization in Asia and Africa. In some of those African countries in particular, you had liberation armies, you had the leaders speaking about the horrors of colonization. But in fact, when they achieved self-government and independence, you didn’t get democracy but you got very dictatorial one-party states and these liberation armies became armies to suppress their own people and silence dissent. You got regimes that became very tyranical and abused their own people and amassed great wealth in the hands of a small elite few. And they hold on to that wealth and power by using brutal police-state tactics.
I guess there is a fear that the de-colonization of First Nations in Canada, if not done with the proper respect for the need of accountability, if not set up in a way so the leadership answers to the people, in a way where the people can take out corrupt and nepotistic leaders, if there are no checks and safeguards, there is a danger that we might see something like what happened in Africa in Canada. That’s why it’s so very, very important that people work to inform themselves and not take things at face value.