(Previously published in The Eastern Door) What would the future be like if we were serious about making change? It’s become increasingly clear to people in First Nations communities (if not their leaders) that until we restore our traditional governments to power and recover the strength of our unity, Canadian politicians will continue to use the financial and political power they hold over their employees in the band council system to manipulate, frustrate and humiliate all of our people.

What would we do if we were really serious about changing things and breaking from the colonial chains that have been placed around our neck and which we have become so fond of carrying around? The first thing we would do is have a hard look at the whole Indian Act system itself: the Department of Indian Affairs, the band councils, the Assembly of First Nations, and all of the other organizations paid for by the Canadian government that purport to represent our people. Is it possible to use this system of organization to move towards self-determination? Of course not. All political economic logic and all our collective experience, not to mention plain common sense, tell us that it is impossible to achieve our goals while we are burdened with not only the Indian Act itself, but with the system of government it has brought into our communities. The fact that we still use and support this system and all of its parts – its law, its money, its institutions, its ideas – proves that we’re not serious about our own self-determination. If we are saying to the world that we’re in a struggle for the survival of our nations and fighting for our inherent rights as Indigenous peoples, then I’m afraid we’re all talk and no action, my Brothers and Sisters.

There are three principles by which any approach to making change should be judged: Will it create real and immediate improvements in people’s lives? Will it help people realize their own strength and give them pride? Will it give us more power?

Let’s be honest: Does anything done by or within the Indian Act system ever achieve any of these goals? All of our actions, whether as “national” organizations or local band councils, are really limited to reacting to the federal government’s policies and in the end are focused on implementing the federal government’s agenda and ideas. Nothing that happens in the system is in any sense focused on the real and immediate needs and concerns of people in our communities.

Every part of the system, from band councils to the Department of Indian Affairs, is concerned not with strengthening our people but with building its own power, meaning that the only power relationships that are questioned and fought over are the ones between the different parts of the Indian Affairs system-band councillors fighting with tribal councils over money, regional chiefs vying with each other for power and uniting against the National Chief, organizations arguing for more responsibility and money from the Department. It all happens under the same, unquestioned supremacy of the system.

The first step in a serious movement for change would be to put it bluntly, proving to ourselves and our adversaries that we love our land and our rights more than we love the Indian Act system. We have to make some sacrifices and bite the hand that is feeding us to prove that we love our cultures and our nations and that we want them to survive- but everyone know that it takes more than just words to prove one’s love.

First Nations governments have been set up by the federal government to ensure that we cooperate with federal and provincial government authority whose agenda has always been, and still remains, focused on destroying our power and assimilating our people. Our leaders talk about wanting to empower our people and achieve self-determination. But these words are always spoken from within the Indian Act system, which was created for the sole purpose of keeping us dependent and weak. Does that make sense to you?

Someone once explained it to me in very simple terms, asking the question, “What’s the first thing to do when you find yourself in a hole six feet deep and you want to get out? Stop digging.” Those words of wisdom were like a slap in the face that turned me right around and woke me up to the reality that it is impossible to do good in an evil system. Being that we’re organized for our own destruction under the Indian Act, and do not doubt that we are, the first logical step to empowerment and self-determination would be to just stop digging ourselves deeper into the hole: Stop cooperating with the Indian Act system and stop giving it power over us! The political landscape is so well-known and the facts of our political life so clear now that any plan of action or any leader not calling for the immediate rejection of the Indian Act system must be seen as an ally and supporter of the power of that same system – no matter how radical that plan or that leader claims to be in rhetoric, or what excuses for inaction that are offered. Our people have suffered long enough and they are totally disillusioned and frustrated by the Indian Act system, with its combination of divisive and ineffective band councils on the local level and corrupt and ineffective organizations on the “national” level. It’s time to acknowledge that the root of the problem is the system itself and our own participation in it. We need to, in a sense, “de-organize” and reject the Indian Act system from our communities and remove the Indian Act mentality from our lives.

I know that the path I am pointing towards is not easy or smooth: it is a rough, uphill path that will demand courage and will involve much conflict and sacrifice on our part. But the easy, smooth path is the way of surrender. The rough, uphill path of change is the only one that leads to a place where we can survive as nations with dignity. We must take the first steps now, and start bringing our practice into line with our rhetoric. What is the alternative to the Indian Act chain hung around our neck? This is not a question that can be answered by one person. The alternative will emerge out of our struggle to redefine who we are and how we relate to each other. But I do believe that there are three basic organizing principles to start with which, if built into the foundations of any new Indigenous foundations of any new Indigenous organization, will ensure that real changes in the lives of our people will be advanced.

We must reinstate traditional forms of governance in our communities. We must recreate traditional alliances among our nations. We must be independent from the Canadian government financially and politically.

Also, a new strategy and a whole new approach to making change will be needed to match up with these new Indigenous forms of organization. As it is now, the constant stream of empty threats and high-pitched indignant whine flowing from our Indian Act politicians’ mouths is not only annoying and tiresome but totally useless. If we were serious about changing our situation, instead of all the time complaining about not having power and not being respected by white people, we would be taking positive steps to build power and gain respect. We would be working hard to develop the capacity to advance intelligent, nonviolent strategies of social, political, and economic confrontation to force the Canadian government to recalculate the cost of defending its Indian Act system. This is the way to put the “Great Law of Change” into practice.

The Great Law of Change is real simple: Change takes power, power takes organization, and organization takes unity. We could have all of those things if we really wanted them; and we could change our situation very quickly if we really wanted to do it. But, being seriously committed to making change in our lives would mean doing what is necessary to make change happen, not just talking about it.