Excerpted from Warrior Life: Indigenous Resistance and Resurgence (Fernwood Publishing), a collection of essays by Pamela Palmater.
I wish I didn’t have to write this. I wish I could say that now that Canadians have changed their federal government everything will be okay. But that is not a given. The decade-long reign of terror against First Nations, the environment and democratic rights and freedoms has worn on everyone.
Yet, there is still a great deal of work to undo the harm that was done and prepare the path ahead for a safer, healthier and more just future for First Nations and Canadians alike. Nothing will change for us unless we address all the contributing factors to our current situation and that includes the many afflictions we suffer due to such extensive and prolonged colonization.
The lifelong work of so many Indigenous activists, defenders and natural leaders culminated in the Idle No More movement and helped empower our people to understand some of the very complex ways in which centuries of colonization have impacted us. But understanding the sickness of colonization is only the first step. It’s time we finally got rid of what isn’t working for us—even if that means parting ways with long-establishe advocacy organizations or demanding better of our leaders.
But we cannot ignore the tremendous power that Canada’s assimilatory laws, policies and programs have had on us. The extreme suffering of our people—scalpings, rapes, tortures, sterilizations, starvations and prisons can turn our best leaders from proud defenders of our sovereignty and identity to those who would settle for programs or contracts to try to bring relief to our people.
This is not a matter of blame or judgement. How many Canadian politicians could stand before their constituencies and tell them to hang tough while their little girls go murdered and missing or their little boys hang themselves? Precious few I am sure.
I don’t blame or judge any of our people and in fact, I think we need to forgive ourselves for the many ways in which colonization has impacted us. It wasn’t our doing and we have paid a dear price—but we can’t let it continue to hurt our people.
Harper wasn’t the only problem
One of the many prices we have paid for such extensive control over our peoples by the federal government is the way in which Canada has slowly gained control over our political and advocacy organizations.
We have to remember that during the last decade, it wasn’t just Harper that was a problem for First Nations, but some of the national Aboriginal organizations were as well. The Congress of Aboriginal Peoples (CAP) was the first to hitch itself to the Harper government.
Former president Patrick Brazeau gained himself a Senate seat for his outrageous anti-First Nations rhetoric. Aside from his offensive videos shot from the chamber of the Senate, he was combative towards First Nations people who appeared before him at committees, especially women.
The CAP, formerly the Native Council of Canada, had been established to advocate for the rights of off-reserve Indians, non-status Indians, and Métis peoples and they were included in the constitutional talks of the 1980s and at the Kelowna Accord negotiations.
However, under Brazeau’s tenure, it quickly descended into an anti-chief and anti-First Nations organization that betrayed its original purpose.
At one regional meeting, president Brazeau was chanting, “Down with the Chiefs!” We are all too familiar with the disgraceful conduct of Senator Brazeau, which was followed by criminal charges, investigations, and subsequent suspension from the Senate.
His successor, Betty-Ann Lavallee, carried on in Brazeau’s path by hitching herself to Harper’s government so that the CAP literally dropped out of sight. Whenever the CAP did make a statement, it was merely to support Harper.
At a time when Idle No More was protesting in the streets and most First Nations were criticizing Harper, Lavallee was praising Harper as practical, down-to-earth, reasonable and having shown cap “very large support.”
An organization that was formed from the spirit and resistance of Indigenous Peoples who were excluded by Canadian laws and policies sadly became an organization that supported one of the most anti-Indigenous governments in recent years. The CAP has remained ineffectual and irrelevant ever since.
The rise and fall of the Assembly of First Nations
The much-critiqued Assembly of First Nations (AFN) wasn’t always what it is today either.
After the First World War, the League of Indians was the first major attempt at a national body to represent First Nations’ interests across the country. Insiders explain that significant government interference with their activities prevented it from taking hold.
After the Second World War, First Nations political activists tried again with the National American Indian Brotherhood, but again a lack of funding and government actions were impediments to its success. The National Indian Council (NIC) was formed in 1961 to provide unity among all Indian people and represented treaty, status, non-status, and Métis peoples (the Inuit were excluded).
Discord grew within the organization, so, in the 1970s several key First Nations leaders—George Manuel, Harold Cardinal, and others—formed the National Indian Brotherhood (NIB), which focused on First Nations’ issues.
Coinciding with the patriation of the constitution, the organization later became the AFN.
The NIB/AFN originally had good intentions and did a great deal of advocacy work; however, over the years the original vision of those early leaders seems to have been lost.
The 2010s saw a significant downturn for the AFN as it has lost legitimacy among many grassroots peoples and even some of the chiefs.
Despite the incredible opportunity with the massive Idle No Movement, the AFN instead propped up the Harper government and chose to ignore the obvious will of the people.
When the former National Chief, Shawn Atleo, chose to go against the demands of Idle No More and Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence and met with the Prime Minister instead of holding out for a meeting that included the governor general, we knew the AFN had changed.
Many chiefs protested this meeting and chose to march on with their grassroots citizens instead of supporting the AFN. Some chiefs officially withdrew from the AFN or wrote letters saying the AFN no longer represented them.
But the AFN did not adjust their actions to account for this growing dissent. Despite receiving resolutions from chiefs and widespread criticism of AFN activities by grassroots citizens, the AFN continued its secret meetings with the Harper government.
Many treaty First Nations then organized as the National Treaty Alliance to ensure that their treaty rights were protected. They wanted to make it clear that the AFN did not speak for them and could not make deals on their treaty rights. Even the Confederacy of Nations, provided for under the AFN charter, was reinvigorated in an attempt to get back control over the AFN.
The AFN stayed the course and sided with the government. The final straw was the surprise joint announcement by Atleo and Harper on an education “deal” that did not have the consent of First Nations. The outcry from chiefs and grassroots citizens ultimately led to Atleo’s resignation.
The AFN has never fully recovered. I wish I could say that simply getting rid of these organizations would change everything, but that would not be true.
Unlike organizations like the CAP, the power and influence of the AFN extend well beyond any term of office for its regional or national chiefs. Looking at where some of the current and former regional and national chiefs have ended up gives us a clearer picture of why we should be so concerned about what actually happens in those organizations and why change is so desperately needed.
“Something is better than nothing” mantra
One of the worst examples is that of the AFN Regional Chief for New Brunswick and PEI, Roger Augustine. Augustine’s “something is better than nothing” motto is why he publicly supported Atleo’s education deal—even in the face of opposition from so many chiefs.
He is also part-owner of a company called Gitpo Storms Corporation in partnership with former AFN National Chiefs Matthew Coon Come, Ovide Mercredi, and Shawn Atleo.
Their corporation is listed as set up in New Brunswick at 8 Gitpo Road in Eel Ground First Nation. This is the same business address listed as the AFN office of Regional Chief Augustine. Does the AFN not see this as a gross conflict of interest?
Where in the charter of the AFN has their mandate changed so dramatically?
The AFN regional chiefs are elected to bring the views and interests of their constituents (the chiefs in their region) to the AFN. The regional chiefs, as part of the AFN, are elected to advocate on behalf of First Nations’ rights and interests.
Atleo explained that the AFN was allegedly there to “open doors” for First Nations within the government. It was neither set up nor provided with a mandate for individual regional chiefs to negotiate with corporations and businesses to see how much profit they can make personally within the territories of the chiefs they serve.
The inherent Aboriginal and treaty rights of Mi’kmaw and Wolastoqiyik (Maliseet) peoples in New Brunswick belong to the peoples within those two nations. These rights do not belong to the AFN or their elected representatives.
I am from Mi’kmaw territory in New Brunswick, as are my family and friends; none of us were informed about this AFN company. If this is a company that was set up on behalf of First Nations, why were Mi’kmaw and Wolastoqiyik citizens not informed? Why would former national chiefs be partnering in business ventures with the AFN?
Some of the chiefs worry that their company was set up to get contracts related to major natural resources projects in New Brunswick, including the Energy East Pipeline and/or Sisson Mining Project.
The information about this partnership is as much of a surprise as was the announcement by Atleo that took place only two hours after Perry Bellegarde was elected AFN chief. Atleo announced that he had been appointed as the new Senior Advisor to Pacific Future Energy Corporation, one of the companies wanting to build an oil refinery in B.C.
His former AFN staffer, Jeffrey Copenace, is senior vice-president. It was further announced that former National Chief Ovide Mercredi would also be joining the team. The Chair of Pacific Future Energy at the time was none other than former Conservative cabinet minister Stockwell Day, who served as Minister of Public Safety and then Minister of International Trade in the Harper government.
The former partnership between AFN and Conservatives manifested as a business deal after Atleo’s resignation from the AFN. Instead of advocating for Aboriginal and treaty rights, Atleo now promoted the oil industry.
Mercredi was one of the former national chiefs who most vocally defended Atleo during Idle No More protests and the widespread criticisms from chiefs, despite his former role as the Treaties 1–11 spokesperson.
Mercredi is not just a former AFN National Chief, he was also president (now past president) of the Manitoba NDP, ironically one of the most conservative governments in Canada.
Manitoba has the highest rates of murdered and missing Indigenous women and little girls, the highest rates of Indigenous children in foster care, some of the highest rates of over-incarceration of Indigenous Peoples and possibly the worst government record on mining and other industry abuses on First Nations’ lands.
So, have the AFN and Manitoba NDP partnered to seek natural resource contracts in New Brunswick?
To make matters even more confusing, several months after the announcement of Atleo and Mercredi joining Pacific Future Energy, SNC-Lavalin made their own announcement that they were teaming up with Atleo. A-in-Chut Business Group, Atleo’s company, is set to do the pre-engineering studies for Pacific Future Energy with SNC. The overall plan is to transport Alberta tar sands oil to a refinery for transport by tanker to Asia.
I am not just surprised; I am very disappointed. These former national chiefs and current Regional Chief were elected and given all of their power and influence from First Nations chiefs. Their ability to represent First Nations nationally was a privilege and a great responsibility. The power and influence they have is owed in part to that given to them when they each held the position of national chief. They may no longer hold that position, but many Elders and traditional leaders have argued that they have an enduring responsibility to ensure that they use that power and influence in a good way.
Some have even said that because of that incredible privilege bestowed on them, they have to conduct themselves according to a very high standard. I am not an Elder, nor am I a traditional leader, so it is not for me to say whether or not this is the case.
But it has always been my personal view, based on my Mi’kmaw upbringing, that a leader always carries the obligation for their people with them. These are the same people who know the conditions of our people and know the causes. They know that the dispossession of our lands and resources is the root cause of our poverty. Some of these leaders have suffered personally at the hands of government policies designed to assimilate or eliminate us. Despite their own struggles, some of these men did some good work during their tenures as national chiefs. That is what makes the situation all the more disappointing. How does one go from advocate for First Nations to advocate for industry? It is hard enough for First Nations to battle federal and provincial governments and the massive extractive industry, but it becomes a nearly insurmountable task for us to try to counter our own people.
This is especially true when many of our nations have cultural protocols that discourage us from acting in a way that disrespects our former leaders—elected, traditional or hereditary. We prefer to be united and support one another.
The AFN and Manitoba NDP representatives have created a near-impossible situation for the Mi’kmaw and Wolastoqiyik peoples of New Brunswick. If these former national chiefs sign contracts for infrastructure or projects related to natural resource extraction in our territory, it will impede our ability to say no to the project.
Imagine the optics of Mi’kmaw and Wolastoqiyik peoples deciding that no pipeline will come to New Brunswick when a company of three former national chiefs and one current AFN Regional Chief have already signed and benefitted from contracts related to those projects? Imagine the public’s confusion when former AFN Regional Chief Jodi Wilson-Raybould, as Minister of Justice, appears in litigation against Mi’kmaw or Maliseet land defenders asserting our Aboriginal and treaty rights, with evidence including affidavits from former AFN national chiefs saying the pipeline is great business?
I wonder how much thought went into this company outside of financial and business considerations. However, our Elders have always told us that the core of sovereignty is acting in defence of our peoples, lands and cultures—even if this means challenging one of our own who may be taking us down the wrong path. I am disappointed in these business partners because it was kept a secret from the people.
Part of what makes our resistance to colonization and the ongoing dispossession of our rights so difficult is the lack of information. We are always the last to know about projects in our territory and even when we do learn of these projects, we never get all the information. As the last to know, we rarely have enough time to research and provide our input. Government and industry take advantage of our lack of access to information and a lack of resources to mount a defence against violations of our rights. Imagine how much harder this will be with the AFN involved on the side of industry?
I am not suggesting that no Indigenous person ever open a business, work as a consultant or sit on boards and committees. I think everyone benefits from the wisdom, experience, skills and perspectives of Indigenous Peoples.
Nor am I suggesting that no Indigenous person should ever work with the extractive industry in certain capacities that try to help change how they do business. I admit that there is certainly no Canadian law against former AFN national chiefs doing any of these things.
But the first laws of our territories come from our sovereign nations. While our laws are as diverse as our nations, I think it is pretty common knowledge that no one gets to hunt, fish or use our territories without our knowledge and consent. This has been the law since time immemorial. Even the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples quoted by the AFN, says nothing happens without “free, informed and prior consent.” That applies not just to federal and provincial governments and corporations, but also to other non-territorial First Nations. Setting up a company designed to get “Aboriginal” contracts from projects in our territory based on our Aboriginal and treaty rights is as offensive as hunting in our territory without consent.
We have a very unique situation in Mi’kmaw and Wolastoqiyik territory. Despite many attacks on our peoples and even scalping bounties on our heads, we have never surrendered our lands. Our lands are unceded territory. Therefore, we have original Aboriginal title to all the lands in the Atlantic region.
We also have constitutionally protected Aboriginal rights and numerous treaties. Our rights are very strong and the last thing we need is for some First Nations people from other territories to come into our territory and making deals. We have not even decided as nations which projects we accept and which we don’t. As the sovereign nations who are the keepers of the lands in our territories, these are our decisions to make. In our territory, it is the province and industry who must ask us for permission, not the other way around.
The discussion with the province should no longer revolve around consultation and impact benefits (low-level jobs and contracts); rather, it must be about ownership and jurisdiction. It is certainly not appropriate for the AFN or the current sitting Grand Chief of the Cree Nation to act this way in our territory. If we are truly to empower one another, let’s start by respecting the sovereignty and laws of our respective nations.
In June 2017, the federal government approved the $579-million Sisson tungsten and molybdenum mine, located about 60 kilometres from Fredericton, NB. Wolastoqiyik grandmothers occupied a camp near the proposed site to protest the mine, saying it did not have the consent of the people. Six Wolastoqey First Nations later signed an accommodation agreement with the Province of New Brunswick, giving them a share of the provincial revenue generated from the mine. The First Nations claim that they are still opposed to the mine but did not want to lose their separate tax agreement with the Province and felt they had no choice but to sign. Grassroots organizers say they have not voted on the deal.
Pamela Palmater is a Mi’kmaw citizen member of Eel River Bar First Nation and the Chair in Indigenous Governance at Ryerson University. This article, originally published on Palmater’s Indigenous Nationhood blog in November 2015, has been updated and slightly edited for length.