By Doug Cuthand
Saskatoon StarPhoenix

Friday, January 04, 2008 

In early December, the Assembly of First Nations held a chiefs’ assembly in Ottawa. Among the items of business, the chiefs passed a resolution condemning the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples (CAP), stating that it was not the legitimate voice of the First Nations and were not a representative body.

It was termed ugly politics by some, but I felt it was about time the chiefs stood up and voiced their concerns.

The AFN is the legitimate organization that represents First Nations. Its membership is composed of the elected leaders. The Metis National council and its provincial member organizations consist of a system of locals that represent people at the community level. CAP consists of a dubious membership made up of non-elected individuals.

For the Federal government to recognize CAP is akin to the provincial government dismissing SARM and SUMA in favour of a self-appointed, non-representative group. The hue and cry against doing so would be tremendous.

For the Harper government to recognize the unrepresentative CAP organization over the legitimate elected leaders is a denial of our political rights.

The system of chiefs and councils is a governance system that our people have used for years. It predates the treaties and European contact. When the treaties were negotiated and signed, the government of the day chose to enter into the agreement with the chiefs and their “headmen.” When they wanted to assign blame following the Northwest Rebellion they sought out the chiefs and sent them and their followers to jail. In a perverse way they recognized the authority of the chiefs.

For much of the 20th century, many First Nations in Saskatchewan didn’t have a chief or they had a lifetime chief. The Indian agent ran the show and didn’t tolerate local leadership or dissent.

The early political organizers had to work with the local people to get elections and reinstate the chief and council system. The fact that the then Department of Indian Affairs fought against local control is an indication of the potential and power of legitimate First Nations government.

When the provincial organization, the Union of Saskatchewan Indians was formed, it was the chiefs who drove it. Later they evolved it into the Federation of Saskatchewan Indians and reconstituted it in the 1980s into a legislative assembly known as the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations. In all cases, the chiefs drove the process.

There are some who are legitimately critical about their elected leaders. All democratic institutions must be able to face dissent. It’s a natural part of governance.

How many times have we heard of someone or some group critical of city council, the members of the legislature or Parliament? Criticism is part of democracy, so do we scrap the system because someone is critical of it? Why should a historic and legitimate system for First Nations be any different?

So why has CAP become the national voice of the aboriginal people? First, AFN national chief Phil Fontaine had strong ties to the Liberal party. In the partisan bubble Stephen Harper lives in, anything “Liberal” is a bad thing. Also, the AFN is a strong voice for First Nations people and the Conservative government would rather deal with a compliant and weak group. It prefers a vassal state to an independent voice.

The National “chief” of CAP, Patrick Brazeau, has made a series of policy statements that are naïve and lack substance but have currency with the federal government. For example, he wants to see the Indian Act scrapped but fails to provide an alternative that would strengthen First Nations.

He supports the proposition that the 600 First Nations be reduced to 60, but doesn’t explain how. He has fallen in line with every Conservative policy, including the scrapping of the Kelowna Accord that would have provided much needed resources for First Nations infrastructure, health, education and economic development.

This is music to Harper’s ears and his proven strategy is to drive wedges between groups. Whether it’s farmers, the provinces, West verses East or First Nations, his strategy is to rule through division. Nation-building has to take a back seat.

It is said that a statesman works for the next generation while a politician works for the next election. Harper has proven that he sees only the next election, with the damage he inflicts on the country being immaterial.

Historically, nations are built on institutions and not individuals. Nations that build around individuals are doomed to have turmoil, as new individuals vie for supremacy. Nations built around institutions have stability and processes that absorb the vagaries of politics.

We need to strengthen our First Nations governments with our eyes on the long term and avoid straw men and their shallow opportunism.