Canada’s Emerging Indigenous Right’s Framework

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Changes are afoot among First Nations

A few weeks ago, Romeo Saganash, the NDP member of Parliament for Abitibi-Baie James-Nunavik-Eeyou dropped an f-bomb in the House of Commons. He was clearly frustrated with the Liberals’ determination to proceed with the Trans Mountain pipeline despite First Nations opposition.

“Why doesn’t the prime minister just say the truth and tell Indigenous peoples that he doesn’t give a f**k about their rights?” he asked the stunned members of the House of Commons.

Of course, he was called out by the Speaker and told to apologize, which he did in French. Saganash is trilingual and fluent in Cree, English and French. The prime minister wasn’t in the house at the time, but you can be sure he heard all about it.

However, social media lit up with First Nations people supporting his use of bad language and championing his cause. He has become one more hero in Indian Country.

This little incident is an example of the change that is occurring in Indian Country. The old guard in the Assembly of First Nations and the regional organizations like the FSIN have been eclipsed by independent leaders that appeal more to the young, politically motivated members of the Indigenous community.

Dr. Pam Palmater is an associate professor at Ryerson University who travels the country speaking out on issues of First Nations rights and governance. She is also a regular panellist on the CBC. I once saw her destroy a member of the Taxpayers Federation. She gave no quarter and attacked the very existence of his organization.

Senator Murray Sinclair and Wilton Littlechild are two keen legal minds who led the discussions and action related to reconciliation. They continue as moral leaders and appear regularly on panels and at speaking engagements across the country.

Cindy Blackstock persisted in the legal fight to have the government recognize the serious underfunding in child welfare and by extension all First Nations social and educational programs. She was the public face of an eight-year battle with the government. Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada even conducted surveillance on her, barring her from meetings and spying on her Facebook page.

There was a time when we had very few spokespeople. In the postwar period when our leaders began to organize in earnest, many First Nations didn’t have chiefs. The Indian Agent ran the whole show. It therefore became a political act to elect a chief and council that could speak on behalf of the people.

The emphasis was on the chiefs and they spoke out demanding better living conditions and the recognition of our treaty rights. The federal Indian Affairs department regarded the provincial organizations as a dangerous fifth column. To counter political government, the department dumped government programs on the First Nations. The first program to be transferred was welfare, which was the worst for the government to administer.

The chief and council became administrators for the government and cemented the neocolonial system.

Over the years the chiefs and their organizations have become compromised and are now the administrators for their people. They are stuck with a system that underfunded and over-regulated.

At one time leaders such as Harold Cardinal, George Manuel, David Ahenakew and Noel Starblanket commanded respect and had the ear of their people and government.

Perry Bellegarde, the National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, is now seen as too close to the federal government and Justin Trudeau in particular. His stand on the Trans Mountain pipelines is vague in comparison to the militant opposition from Pam Palmater and Mohawk activist Russell Diabo.