Latest insult to our people: label First Nation citizens as victims, leaders villains
- Latest insult to our people: label First Nation citizens as victims, leaders villains
This very clever attack to undermine our efforts to gain respect, for the right to lead our own economic development, education or local governance is garnering a lot of attention today.
By SHAWN ATLEO
Published November 1, 2010
When I was a young leader in my home community, Ahousaht First Nation-on the far west coast of Vancouver Island-and certainly for generations of leaders before me-I was surprised when asked to respond to insults against my people that generally fell into one of two buckets.
The first was labelled "Indian Villains"-the concept that First Nations want to block progress, steal fisheries jobs, defend sexism-and similar mythologies. More recently, from some who call themselves "friends," I am asked to respond to the cartoon of our people labelled "Indian Victims." You know these stories and the familiar headlines: poverty, substance abuse, poor housing and suicide.
The latest insult is the attempt to divide our people, with First Nation citizens labelled victims and their leaders, the villains. This very clever attack to undermine our efforts to gain respect, for the right to lead our own economic development, education or local governance is garnering a lot of attention today. This is the insult that paints First Nation leadership as overpaid, unaccountable local bosses, uninterested in the challenges faced by First Nation citizens on and off reserves.
Well I refuse to buy into this latest caricature. If you are interested in the realities faced by First Nation leaders across Canada, I'd caution you from buying this nonsense too. Unlike the Fraser Institute-an opponent of First Nations development since its creation-or our latest and even more improbable attacker-the Canadian Taxpayers Federation-I know the men and women they slander.
I see their daily struggles as committed leaders, and I meet them on the job, on reserve, every week across Canada.
Let me tell you about some of them. Chief Cliff Tawpisin, for example, who leads the Muskeg Lake Cree Nation, just outside of Saskatoon, with a membership of about 1,850. On the day I met with Chief Cliff, he was juggling a range of issues that had him in the role of carpenter, counsellor and corporate executive. At the same time as responding to inquiries from families, he is managing comprehensive community planning and pushing forward innovative partnerships to improve the quality of life for the citizens and community.
Chief Cliff impresses me with his solid grasp of the day-to-day struggles of his community and his tremendously clear vision of his community focused on accountability and transparency. Every decision by chief and council is done in an open forum and every dollar spent is reflected in a full report to the community twice annually. But more than that, Chief Cliff engages his people not just in reporting but in shaping the community's plans. At the end of our meeting, he was on the phone setting up a meeting of his members living in the neighbouring community to make sure they were updated on the latest improvements. Chief Cliff works seven days a week and many 16-hour days-for this he is paid $75,000 annually.
I also recall my visit with Grand Chief Anne Archambault. At an age when most Canadians are well into retirement, Grand Chief Anne continues the fight for her people. With only one employee, Grand Chief Anne says herself, her job is a difficult one. As a passionate defender of Malecite heritage and language she is re-building her nation and re-connecting families one at a time. Starting with only an acre of reserve land, Grand Chief Anne is re-building la Première Nation Malécite de Viger, located 200 kilometers east of Quebec City and righting a terrible injustice when land was taken from the Malécite of this region. Community members knock at her door looking for help with everything from representing them and their kids at meetings with school authorities to assistance dealing with conservation officers. While we talk, she opens a letter from the federal government requiring a response two weeks ago-she gets to work on a response right away. She too works around the clock with evenings filled representing the Malecite within neighbouring municipalities. Grand Chief Anne's devotion is undeniable-her salary, after decades of being leader, is $52,000.
Or I can think of earlier this month when I joined First Nation leadership in Edmonton at a special meeting of the Senate Committee on Aboriginal Peoples. The chiefs all gave excellent presentations. Chief Rose Laboucan of Driftpile First Nation explained the tremendous efforts she makes to support the children in her community and their successes at improving education despite the lack of resources and support. She concluded by saying that if anyone questioned her commitment or her accountability, they should know that she holds a masters degree and earns $45,000 annually.
The reality that those of us who actually know the impressive men and women who lead band councils on reserves across Canada is that this generation of First Nation leaders is the best-educated, most capable group in our history. They make a huge difference in the lives of our people, every day, year in year out, in the face of huge obstacles. They do the work of senior executives in government and the private sector with few of their tools or support. They deserve to be well-paid and in some cases they are.
I'm proud of the gains we are making for our people on economic development, health and education. I'm determined we are going to accelerate those gains in the years ahead. And none of our people are going to be deterred by this latest campaign of insults. We don't play the villain/victim game anymore.
Shawn A-in-chut Atleo is national chief, Assembly of First Nations.
The Hill Times
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