It is Thursday, and Chief Art Manuel is going home.
He has just attended the Assembly of First Nations in Kahnawake, where an already tenuous relationship between Canada’s aboriginal people and the federal government was shaken to its very foundations.
First was AFN National Chief Matthew Coon Come’s call for Indian Affairs Minister Robert Nault to resign.
Then the proposal of building a “war chest” to help fund future political and legal battles.
Hanging in the air all the while was the possibility of a potential court challenge to the federal government’s First Nations Governance Act. Despite being legislated as a means of overhauling the 126-year-old Indian, Chief Manuel left Kahnawake accompanied by one certainty: the First Nations Governance Act has to be stopped. “The FNGA is not going to help our people,” he said after the third and final day. “Our people are already subject to beaurocracy. To a certain extent, Canadian bands have taken over programs and services with the illusion that we could change them and make them more functional for our people. In the final analysis, what has happened is we have greater government control.
“the FNGA is just trying to legislate that.” The bill in question would force native leaders to open up their finances to the government, and potentially face disciplinary action by band members.
Chief Manuel of the Shuswap Nation in Neskonlith (British Colombia) was among the 200 chiefs with voting power at the meeting. His opposition to Nault is thinly veiled at best, but so is his concern for the need of greater unity between First Nation communities.
“The chiefs need to be more assertive; I think more political action needs to be taken, and more community action needs to be taken.” So where is the silver lining? The moment of inspiration when compromise is finally reached? Former Finance Minister Paul Martin received a standing ovation for his proclaimed commitment to self-govemance for First Nations, but rhetoric must eventually give way to reality.
“I think he said a lot of nice things, but in the back of my mind I think that he was in the cabinet when legislative packages were introduced. It’s obvious he’s campaigning.” For now, everyone is waiting for the other shoe to drop. A $6 million legal fund (based upon a $ 10,000 donation from every band across Canada) would certainly make life difficult for Capitol Hill, though no closer to a future resolution.