Friday, July 31, 2009

Being called an "assimilationist" seems to be one of the worst criticisms levelled by certain First Nation activists. I have been called such by one blogger. I was accused of being a part of the "assimilationist" crowd.
The problem is I do not really understand this criticism. Most First Nation people have become integrated into the Canadian Western mainstream over the last several generations. This does not mean they have forgotten their languages, their history or do not practice some form of indigenous spirituality.
This means they have integrated to some degree into the market economy (they buy things from non-Aboriginal businesses, they do not all engage in traditional subsistence economic activities, like hunting, trapping and fishing). This also means they have adopted some mainstream values as their own. This also in most instances means they do not dress or necessarily act as their ancestors did.
But, this is all a part of the natural, inevitable process of cultural contact. European societies all changed as they encountered different peoples and value streams.
In the words of the post-modernist, let's "deconstruct" or "unpack" this concept of "assimiliation." In the way that indigenous critics use it, it is as term of derision for someone who has adopted European ways. But, as I explained above, this is illogical as ALL indigenous peoples (with the exception of the most remote Inuit or First Nations) have "assimilated" to some degree. This is the case of the pot calling the kettle black. I mean, I always find it funny, that these Native Studies-types criticize others for being "assimilationist" when they are part of a "colonialist," white-initiated university system.
Here is my view: Everyone has a right to retain their culture and be proud of it. I have never told an indigenous person to forget their roots, to abandon their language or even encourage them to move off the reserve.
My only concern is with values. I make no bones about it, I don't accept the notion that all cultural values or practices are equal. Some practices in our modern context are downright despicable. When I call for First Nations to respect a regime of individual rights, that may mean some practices have to go. I believe individual rights must include the right to dissociate yourself from a community. Thinkers like Taiaiake Alfred define freedom for indigenous peoples, but only freedom as connected to one's place within indigenous community (this is how I read his arguments in his good book Wasase). I believe you can accept that, but it is not necessary. There must be space for all First Nations to view themselves as humans first and foremost. I say the same thing for my own French-Canadian heritage. I am a human deserving of certain rights and then a member of a community, which I can associate with or not associate with.
This is why I argue that the rights of the individual need to be fleshed out BEFORE self-government arrangements are figured out. Why? Because I think without that, you exchange one form of oppression for another. You go from being under the subjection of the Indian Act and under oppressive chiefs, to under a self-governing system where you still have oppressive chiefs. You need to figure out the package of rights for all citizens first. I also believe accountability measures need to be figured out now before the great self-government experiment. Ultimately, I think that is best for indigenous communities.
So, I do not accept the label of "assimilationist." I am a human rights advocate over a cultural advocate. Let people practice their culture, language and religion as they see fit, but do not use any of those things as a cover for individual oppression.
'Nuff said.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Simpson column on Aboriginal education

Excellent column yesterday in the Globe and Mail about First Nations and the education system. Jeffrey Simpson, in lauding recently-elected AFN head Shawn Atleo, discusses the challenges in closing the gap between Aboriginal Canadians and the mainstream when it comes to education. Read it here:

Some interesting points. Simpson challenges the traditional AFN call for more funding for First Nation education. Yes, there is a funding gap as far as we can see and it should be dealt with. Anything less is discriminatory. But, Simpson raises important points about other factors that place First Nations behind, such as living in an isolated reserve enviroment. There are also issues of how much parental involvement one has in their education and the how much community and family value formal education. Those aspects would need to change as much as per capita education funding.
Simpson also points to the amazing role model that Atleo would be as an accomplished educator in B.C. He earned his master of education and gave a high ranking to education in his AFN platform. I think education is absolutely critical for First Nations, but I would add the priviso that it depends on what First Nations are being educated in.
At the recent AFN annual general meeting, I heard an excellent talk from a representative with the Aboriginal Financial Officers Association. He mentioned the problem being that indigenous youth all wanted to go into law, social work or another similar field, whereas the needs on reserves are in financial managers (self-serving to his point but nonetheless spot on). This lack of capacity could explain what become financial impropriety. I would add to his list entrepreneurs and business leaders. First Nation parents should encourage their children to go into these useful roles, as these are the true "nation building" functions.

Monday, July 27, 2009

The debate over the representative nature of the AFN continues.
One blogger named Shmohawk thinks that it is a travesty to even consider one member, one vote for the AFN.
His big argument is, "The AFN has never been an organization of individual status Indians." Profound, eh?
Of course, not having a history of being representative must mean it must forever be that way. Shmohawk is one of those indigenous activists who believe that indigenous culture must never change.
To add more fun to the discussion, Shmohawk compares the AFN to a national union: "The AFN’s structure is closer to that of a national union, like CUPE, for instance. The union’s membership in a local (say Local 233) vote for a local representative, much like band members vote in band council elections.Local reps may then elect regional or provincial representatives, similar to the way in which John Beaucage was elected to head up one of the regional Indian organizations in Ontario."

And then he goes on:

"Local and regional union reps then get to select the national executive for CUPE. (Correct me here, but I don’t believe every member has a direct vote for national president of CUPE.) Similarly, every now and then, the chiefs cluster to select a new head of their national organization, the AFN. It was never meant to be a “one member, one vote” system."

Of course, all of these theorizing ignores the AFN's own Renewal Commission of 2005 which called for a change in the AFN's internal structure, including a move towards a one member, one vote system.
One of my good indigenous friends, Annette Cyr, has even provided some excellent other suggestions, such as referenda at the band level, so that at least the chief is voting for who the average people want.
People like Shmohawk do not understand the difference between what things were intended to be and what they could become.
No one argues the AFN is an indigneous government. It does not have governmental powers. It is a registered lobby group. But, if it affects the national Aboriginal agenda and sways legislation that affects the lives of everyday indigenous people, don't those people have a say?
Especially if their chief does not consult with the membership on who they should vote as national chief, this institution needs to be reformed.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

New AFN national chief

So, Shawn Atleo will be the new national chief of the AFN. This is what many expected, but most did not expect the long, protracted battle to get there for him. It is also the case Atleo did not even obtain the required 60 per cent threshold. I think he ended up receiving 58 per cent of the vote, which prompted Bellegarde to concede defeat.
Some thoughts on Atleo. He is a younger, polished, telegenic candidate with an eye towards working with Ottawa and he is committed to working with the private sector to lift First Nations out of poverty. He would likely be eager to reach deals with natural resource companies developing FN traditional territories. This might get him into conflict with some more ardent traditionalists.
Some disappoints with him, for me, would be his avoidance of the band-level accountability issues. His own campaign website says that First Nation leaders face "unfounded assertions" of lack of accountability. This is avoiding the problems that are so obvious as to defy the imagination. This is part and parcel of the chiefs-only system. Atleo cannot attack the chiefs that select him.
This brings me to the second major issue which is AFN reform. John Beaucage from Ontario was the only candidate who openly discussed changing the national chief selection process to make it more representative and open. It was disheartening that he did such a poor showing on the first ballot.
Some people point to some undemocratic aspects of the mainstream non-Aboriginal political system when I bring this up. They mention that prime ministers and premiers are chosen at party conventions by delegates. But, I counter that by mentioning that at least those delegates are grassroots Canadians. Second, at least every Canadians has the chance to vote for a local candidate who indirectly impacts who the prime minister will be.
Pointing to the un-democratic aspects of the mainstream system does not change the reality that the AFN system is even MORE undemocratic than the mainstream in so many ways. The AFN race can be compared to a leadership convention where only leaders are welcome and then it ends there. At least in the mainstream, all candidates for PM face general election, and after all, many voters base their local selection based on their perception of the national leader they want as PM.
Anyways, Atleo ignored the AFN's own 2005 Renewal Commissison report which called for one-member, one vote.
Lastly, I am worried Atleo will end up opposing any governmental efforts or legislation that will improve the lives of average indigenous people. His commitment to a rights-based agenda is fine, it is means standing up for treaty resolution and supporting constitutional rights, but it should be taken so far as to hide behind self-government rhetoric every time Ottawa moves to engage FNs in progressive reform.
Also, Atleo is a BC leader where treaties are being negotiated in a modern context. One thoughtful reporter friend of mine mentioned that this may make Atleo more amenable to negotiations and new ways of thinking. Let's hope so!

Monday, July 20, 2009

I though it was funny to hear Phil Fontaine on CBC's The National last night actually defending the undemocratic and anachronistic system of electing the national chief.
Here is my favourite.. The national chief is selected by chiefs who are in turn elected by their communities, so it must be democratic.
Well, in my years as an editor at an Aboriginal newspaper and my experience traveling to over 30 First Nation communities I have never heard of an Indian Act chief consulting his or her community about who he/she should pick for national chief. It doesn't happen.
The chief-only system is a secret, backroom affair.
I am not saying that the AFN itself is legitimate, but if FNs want it to exist, it must be more representative. As it is, with chiefs only, there will be never even be a debate over whether or not to move away from the AFN system.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The race to succeed Phil Fontaine will be an interesting one! The field is wide open and there is no obvious successor to the previous incumbent.
Although reports point to Shawn Atleo as the "frontrunner," I am hoping that the contest becomes more competitive.
While I believe the AFN needs to be reformed (let grassroots reserve people vote) and I do question its legitimacy as the "sole representative of all First Nations people," I think as long as it exists in its present form, we should pay attention, as it sets the national agenda on FN issues.
Perry Bellegarde has been endorsed by one First Nation columnist in the Calgary Herald because he is seen as very experienced and is traditional, but not overtly so.
My personal preference is John Beaucage. His calls for increased private home ownership for First Nations and economic development are what is needed to build indigenous prosperity.
He is also big on asserting First Nation jurisdictional authority. I think he does this in a smart way, as he wants to negotiate control over certain areas of control. He doesn't appear to be confrontational with Ottawa. He's an economist, for heaven's sake! I think it was Fontaine's ability to compromise and negotiatate that allowed for progress on the residential school file.
Anyways, I am open to any and all thoughts about the contest! I will at the AGM on July 22nd and will be blogging from the convention floor while there..

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The Nisga'a Property Rights Issue

I was interviewed last night on a Calgary talk radio station AM 770 about my recent piece on Nisga'a property rights that appeared in the Globe and Mail.
Here is the copy posted on Troy Media:
The issue of property rights on First Nation communities is a sensitive one, as many critics try to argue that any move in this direction is an attempt to "dispossess" indigenous people of their traditional territories or to turn it over to developers.
I received one response from an activist named Lisa Barrett from British Columbia. She attacked my piece, arguing that I was really being "cynically opportunistic."
These arguments are silly given that they are based on cynicism and lack of evidence. Assuming there is a developer hiding behind every proposal is conspiracy-laden, and in the case of the Nisga'a, silly given that the proposals are First Nation-driven. The proposed legislation involves small o.5 hectare (half an acre) residential lots. The Nisga'a government will still have legislative authority to regulate land use, so these schemes to whole-sale dispossess First Nations are impossible.
During my interview, I raised the crucial issue of whether First Nations should have a right to take risks and be responsible for choices just like the rest of us. This legislation does propose giving lenders the right of seizure if loans are defaulted. That is part of the attraction to lenders and investors. They need these assurances that they can recoup on their investments.
Like any other citizen, indigenous people would learn the responsibilities associated with home and land ownership. I think the Nisga'a government is being very wise in educating their public about what this all means.
With freedom comes responsibility. With the chance for progress, there is risk.
This proposal is voluntary, meaning the Nisga'a government offers you transferable rights to the property you have a Nisga'a entitlement to. You can decline the offer and the land remains under the ownership of the Nisga'a Village Governments.
I think the best part of this proposal, if it is eventually passed and they are debating it, is that indigenous people would get to see how private property really works and see the benefits and the responsibilities.
This is far from a proposal, like the Dawes Act in the United States, that saw the federal government divide up large lots to individuals, without any real effort at educating the masses on property ownership. That WAS a transparent attempt to dispossess indigenous people. But, it is not the model we should follow in Canada.
If the Nisga'a property experiment works, it would be a model for all First Nations. The best thing Ottawa could do would be to amend the Indian Act and give all Indian Acts ownership of their land. Then, they could provide it to individuals. Indigenous governments would be empowered to ensure that the indigenous groups retain ultimate ownership to their land through land use regulations and other powers.