National Chief's Opening Remarks VIDEO: http://www.youtube.com/v/WU4gfOP7dmI
[Traditional introduction, acknowledge Algonquin Nation as Host Nation]
Elders, AFN Regional Chiefs and Councils, others tbd
Welcome to the 2010 Special Chiefs Assembly. We have chosen “Building on Our Success – Moving from Endorsement to Action” as our theme, because like you I believe, that is where we are today – about to deliver real change for our people.
I am honoured to be with you today, as together, we fight to make those changes a reality for all our people - the people who send us here.
It’s my privilege to meet some of the most impressive of our people as I travel and work in our communities. Quinn Meawasige is one. Quinn is an inspirational young man from Serpent River First Nation. We met during a rally on Parliament Hill this Fall.
During that event our youth were invited to speak to us about their lives, their hopes. Quinn was one of those brave enough to take up the challenge and I have to tell you he told us a story, one familiar to us all, about the obstacles he and his friends face daily.
I was very moved, then, when I got a message from Chief Isadore Day about Quinn. Chief Day told me that shortly after we met, Quinn entered a treatment program. He took personal responsibility to clear his life of drugs and alcohol. What was even more impressive was that Quinn stood up in front of his community to explain his decision: He said he sees hope in his future … and he knows that he must prepare himself to be a leader.
These are the achievements of our people - some of them, small, private achievements – that we are here to support. This is what we fight for. Quinn’s story is part of our duty to our future generations. As leaders of our peoples, we struggle to bring hope – to help create the options that inspire confidence, to ensure that together we pass to them a better future.
I have had many encounters like this during the last several months. People just like Quinn, overcoming the odds. Young men and women stepping up, taking responsibility for their lives and for their futures. Demonstrating that they are our leaders right now in this - the United Nations Year of Youth.
Our people are calling for change. They expect us to take action, to help them mobilize and to direct their energy and ideas toward a better future for their families, for their communities and for stronger governments.
I said at the Annual General Assembly that we can create real change in our lifetimes. I pledged when we were last together in July that we could create the opportunity for that change not in 50 years, not in 25 years… but within 5 years starting now. …because quite frankly – our people, especially our kids can’t wait.
Our theme “Moving to Action” speaks to this important moment of opportunity for advancement for our peoples.
Your hard work delivered one important change. Canada’s endorsement of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples was an important victory. Canada changed its vote from ‘no’ to ‘yes’ on November 12th… as a result of years of advocacy by our people.
Let us acknowledge the hard work of the world’s 370 million Indigenous peoples, and offer our thanks to the many leaders from Canada – many of them in this room with us today – for their years of effort, their work in shaping the Declaration itself and fighting for its endorsement. And as should be the focus – this will be our first item of business here at our Assembly.
The Declaration serves as a guide. It is a path to respect, to reconciliation and to partnership. And, we as the indigenous peoples, were directly involved in its drafting. It is a path that reflects our historic relationship as treaty partners, as nations that never surrendered our lands, never surrendered our rights or our resources.
I am reminded in a moment like this of the many heroic leaders of indigenous peoples around the world, and across the ages, whose lives and work inspires us today
The great Shawnee Chief Tecumseh who was driven by the idea of uniting our nations to stand strong in the face of oppression;
The wisdom of Anishinaabe Chief Shingwaukonce, who understood the importance of education. Education, not only to advance our people’s goal of economic development, but its importance in sustaining our own languages and cultures.
The great leader of South Africa’s indigenous peoples, Nelson Mandela – a Chief of his people who proved a true leader’s spirit cannot be broken. Indeed he proved that a leader’s strong spirit can bring down an entire regime, through his courage, his conviction and – most importantly – his appeal to justice and fairness.
I look to our heroes today. We have many in this room right now. And I think of the many heroes we have among our young people.
Let’s honour the dream of Shannen Koostachin from Attawapiskat. A teenager and a passionate advocate of fairness in education. A brave young woman who looked the Minister of Indian Affairs in the eye and said softly,… but with irresistible conviction: “My… community… deserves… a… school!”
Tragically, we lost Shannen this year. But her legacy lives on in Shannen’s Dream, a campaign to struggle for better First Nations education for all our children. And, to the boys and girls of Attawapiskat, she has left a powerful personal legacy.
Shannen got them a school!
We celebrate the memory and the achievements of our leaders of yesterday. We stand today united determined to build on their legacy, to frame our strategy for action for our people in the coming year.
And today we stand strong as our usual critics try to attack us and knock us off course.
They have no understanding of the day-to-day reality in our communities; no understanding of the responsibilities of you, the Chiefs, who have to work as leaders, negotiators, grief counselors, carpenters, municipal planners, mentors and managers – often all in the same day!
And yet our critics try to brand us as irresponsible. They smear the more than 3,300 Chiefs and councilors across the country by exaggerating the pay of a small few through phony math.
Well I’m not buying into their game. I say we stand strong and united and show that First Nations are not only not afraid of change and transparency. We are blazing the trail forward. We will set the standards of transparency and accountability for our people – not Ottawa bureaucrats.
As we have been called to do, we will stand strong against every attack. As National Chief this past 18 months – every single month, I have been honoured to accept invitations from you the leaders to walk side by side in the fight for change for our people.
Our people are fighting back on all fronts. We are fighting back to save our waters, to protect our lands – to protect the heritage that is rightfully ours.
We reject the status quo – a reality where our young people are 4 times more likely to commit suicide, more likely to be incarcerated than to graduate high school and where over 500 of our women are murdered or missing! We reject decrepit housing and do not accept filthy drinking water or conditions that put our kids and our families at risk.
We are taking a stand and we are telling all Canadians that we do NOT accept this. We do not accept the imposition of government policy and regulation that pins our people down and holds our economies back. We can and we will move forward.
Our recent Montreal Forum on Nation Building and Re-building demonstrated clearly that it is First Nations peoples themselves who will strengthen our governance and our accountability. A sincere merci beaucoup to the leaders of Québec and Labrador who hosted us for this Forum as the leadership came together to discuss and share strategies on citizenship, treaty implementation, land tenure, economic development… and transparent and effective public administration and accountability at the community level.
Canada’s endorsement of the UN Declaration gives us an opportunity to hit the “reset” button on our relationship with the Crown and our efforts to enable and build our governments. Standing firmly on our rights, our Treaties, our languages and cultures, the UN Declaration can help serve as a guide in this work.
As directed by you, I have had conversations with the Prime Minister and will continue to press him and the Minister of Indian Affairs to engage in discussions on the development of a work plan and best approaches to work toward affirming the rights reflected in the Declaration, rights that are the new standards by which the First Nations-Canada relationship is defined.
We are calling for a First Nations-Crown Gathering involving the Prime Minister and First Nations leaders. The Prime Minister says he is committed to working with us on this. And we will hold him to this commitment.
Without a doubt, the old days of unilateralism are very much still with us. The legislative agenda before parliament dealing with water is one such bad example. That bill is unacceptable, in its current form. We have pointed to a better way – a way that supports our local community leaders and a path to genuinely safe drinking water for our people.
On the other hand, last week, I was invited to the Gallery of the House of Commons, as Minister Duncan finally made a public commitment to all our people to work with us on K-12 education.
The government’s pledge comes exactly one year after, as Chiefs, we stood in Assembly behind our youth demanding action on education. And this is a good new start.
A task force will report both to the Minister and importantly to all of us. Following the eight regional sessions and one national session we will hold early next year, we will then fully discuss this at our Assembly this summer in Moncton to confirm the way forward.
We know that it is OUR people – NOT the government, and certainly not Indian Affairs …. that have been leading innovation in education, developing curriculums and schools focused on our students’ success.
We know the importance of language and culture in their success. We understand the essential role of parents, and their communities in that success. We will ensure that those ideas and that vision are brought forward, to begin a fundamental transformation in First Nation education.
Leadership is about accountability and delivering on an agenda of change. It rests on a foundation of governance that is mandated by and acceptable to our people. Good governance is about relationships. Our treaties with the Crown define that relationship – as opposed to the unilateral imposition of an outdated and crumbling piece of legislation.
As Chiefs, as the Assembly of First Nations, we have been mandated by our people to be their strong advocates, to secure the full recognition and respectful implementation of their treaties, rights and title - that will mark a path of truly transformative change to be achieved at a rate and pace as determined by each First Nation.
The treaties belong to our people, not to the Assembly of First Nations. Our task is to advocate and to fight for their full implementation – to win real change for our people, for their lives and their futures.
We are pressing hard on a long list of other initiatives to deliver these changes. Under your instruction, we are working to build on ideas that have been around a long time - such as a Treaty Tribunal to adjudicate conflicts and the development of a First Nations Rights Fund. (more detail on all of this will be discussed at our Assembly and is in our reports)
We have had a long and difficult relationship with the government of Canada. Our people bear the scars of the ill-considered policies imposed on us. We would not be honest if we did not admit that it has created a legacy of mistrust and suspicion about any new promises, any new initiatives from government ministers – even Prime Ministers.
I understand that skepticism, … I share it.
My approach has been to be very candid with the Prime Minister and his Ministers. I set out very clearly our minimum expectations of them, I press on them the urgency of change. And I make it crystal clear, that is their action – it is their delivery, not their promises – that our people will judge.
As leaders of our peoples, we all know very well, we stand on the shoulders of giants. People like the late Elder Pete Waskahat. We are blessed by the legacy of leadership they demonstrated, often at times far more bitter than those we face, and often with far less power and fewer resources than we can command now.
As we go into serious discussions over treaty implementation and better opportunities for our children and our communities, I often think of them.
I seek their inspiration for our struggles today.
I think of Chiefs like the late Grand Chief Dr. Billy Diamond who passed away just a few months ago and we are honoured to have many members of his family with us here today. Later, today we will honour his memory and his achievements. His leadership and his successes are truly legendary. He also had wise counsel about the challenge of leadership. When asked about being a leader for his people for so long here is what he said:
“You have to learn to stand alone as a leader. …I went through tough times. …But you have to set aside all of your personal wants and thoughts. ….You have to get yourself out of your mind, and … you have to think only for your people”
That is the vision of leadership to which we all aspire.
That is how we remember the ancestors and the Elders that have given us their wisdom and their strength. A strength that protected our people in our homelands since the time of creation.
We attempt to lead today in honour of their achievement, we work to deliver change for our people as a commitment to those who are not yet born…, for they will walk the trails that we help clear today.
So, just as Grand Chief Billy Diamond instructs us – as we go forward as leaders over the days here together and beyond, … we will remember the struggle of our people and work tirelessly to deliver real change.
I am honoured to join you in that work every single day.