Native leaders a force for change?
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----- Original Message -----
From: RUSSELL DIABO
Sent: Monday, August 01, 2005 6:01 AM
Subject: Native leaders a force for change?
Native leaders a force for change?
By MARK HUME
Monday, August 1, 2005 Page A6
VANCOUVER -- Being arrested at machine-gun point by the RCMP's anti-terrorist unit is not the best thing that can happen to a candidate during a campaign. Indeed, it would spell the end of most political careers.
But David Dennis was elected vice-president of the United Native Nations recently, just weeks after being taken down in a high-profile bust on the Burrard Street bridge by the Integrated National Security Enforcement Team with assistance from Vancouver police.
The 14 rifles and 10,000 rounds of ammunition seized at the time were not held against him in the leadership race. Nor was his membership in the Warrior Society, a controversial group that has been involved in native blockades from the Sun Peaks ski resort, near Kamloops, to the Burnt Church protest in New Brunswick.
Mr. Dennis, a solidly built, 30-year-old native activist, sat in his new office recently, together with new UNN president Lillian George, and said he was not surprised voters stuck with him.
In Indian country, it seems, people do not assume you are guilty of anything just because you have been busted.
"The membership was very supportive of me throughout that incident," said Mr. Dennis, who gave up an administrative position with the Nuu-Chah-Nulth Tribal Council to join the UNN. "And probably one of the reasons I got such broad support was in recognition of my ability to stand up to authorities, irregardless of repression on the part of some government agencies."
Mr. Dennis and the two other men he'd been with were released without charge shortly after being taken into custody.
A few days later, Mr. Dennis and other native leaders held a news conference to denounce the police for "trying to criminalize" the Warrior Society.
They produced a bill of sale from a Vancouver firearms store for the 14 rifles and a permit from the Canada Firearms Centre that authorized the transfer of the guns to the Tsawataineuk First Nation, on Vancouver Island. The weaponry, said Mr. Dennis, was destined to be used in a training program for aboriginal youth that taught traditional hunting skills, not armed insurrection.
Mr. Dennis said police are wrong to think of the Warrior Society as some sort of terrorist threat just because it has sometimes provided armed support on blockades.
"The Warrior movement in Canada was established to assist young men in improving their condition. Improving themselves socially, politically and economically.
"Five per cent of that work of course was along the lines of Burnt Church and Cheam [where there were armed blockades], but a good majority of that work was developing programs to assist young men to help themselves," Mr. Dennis said.
"You have to realize that in this dynamic, the aboriginal dynamic, the aboriginal male presents a very problematic situation."
"They are very high in health problems and in incarceration rates. It has been the responsibility of Warrior Societies to teach [aboriginal youths] how to stand up and become young men," Mr. Dennis said.
Although UNN members gave Mr. Dennis a vote of confidence, he has decided to leave the Warrior Society, and it is likely the organization itself will soon fold in British Columbia.
Mr. Dennis said for all its good work over the years, the Warrior S society has now become such a target for police, that it is unlikely to be very effective politically.
The UNN, on the other hand, presents an opportunity to work on social change and to directly affect the quality of life of the 100,000 aboriginals who live off reserve in B.C.
"I ran for this job because I was asked to by a number of elders," said Mr. Dennis, who, along with Ms. George, stepped forward after the UNN was paralyzed by a scandal that involved allegations of drug use and abuse of funds by some directors.
"We are, as off-reserve urban aboriginals, in an absolute crisis," he said. "Our statistics speak for themselves. We have the highest rate of incarceration. We have the highest rate of uneducated people in the province. We fall out of schools. We have an incredible amount of disease and health problems that are [exacerbated] by the poverty, the absolute poverty that exists in urban aboriginal areas all over this province. And there has been a leadership vacuum to represent that voice for some time now so I thought it important to get into office and represent those people in attacking those problems."
Ms. George, has a 14-year history with the UNN, including spending four years as vice-president. She left the organization before it became mired in the drugs and money scandal. She has returned to help restore credibility to an important the institution and to pursue issues that have long concerned her personally.
"For me it's just wanting to do something as an aboriginal woman because there are so many aboriginal women that are on the streets that come from abusive relationships, battered homes . . . they are part of the forgotten people. Invisible. They have fallen through the cracks," Ms. George said. "The voice of aboriginal women has not been heard. . . . I want to work on that, and I'm very proud the membership thought enough of me to elect me to lead this organization out of the shadows, back into a good, positive light."
She said she and Mr. Dennis will function as the "political leaders" of the UNN, which will be restructured to give the executive responsibility for day-to-day events and to more directly involve directors.
Between the two of them -- the experienced non-governmental official who is concerned about aboriginal women and the young firebrand who is disavowing the militancy of the Warrior Society in favour of a new way of helping aboriginal males -- the UNN could soon become a force for change in B.C.
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