Why I won't be the Assembly of First Nations' new chief
BY RICHARD WAGAMESE - JUNE 3, 2012
I want to be national chief of the Assembly of First Nations. As a card-carrying treaty person, such a drastic change in my life would be possible, albeit difficult to pursue. But after three decades of writing about native issues, experiencing larger social issues first hand, and coming to a point where recovery is synonymous with peace, I sometimes feel like it's a worthy option.
The assembly elects a national chief at its general assembly in Toronto next month. At the meeting, all First Nations chiefs or their proxies get to vote. This means, the person who comes to represent some 700,000 First Nations people in Canada is elected by just over 630 chiefs.
So do you need to be an elected chief to become the national leader? No. To be eligible to run for national chief, the AFN charter sets out guidelines. A candidate must be at least 18 years of age, be of First Nations ancestry and a member of a First Nation that is in good standing in the AFN. So far, so good.
Each candidate must submit a nomination form when they declare their intention to run. The nomination form must bear the signature of 15 chiefs of First Nations. At least eight of those chiefs have to be from a province or territory outside of where the candidate comes from.
I'm 56, Ojibwa from Wabaseemoong First Nation in northwestern Ontario.
Again, so far, so good.
But this is where things get tougher. Securing the signatures of eight chiefs from outside my territory would involve a lot of travel. I live and write in British Columbia, but the AFN charter refers to my home territory. So I would need to venture out to meet with chiefs both in Ontario and beyond to campaign for their approval on my decision to run. That costs money.
The AFN charter stipulates that candidates are limited to campaign expenses of $35,000. The reality is that campaigning costs a whole lot more. The expense climbs depending on how long you campaign and where you focus the brunt of your energies. This is where the separation occurs. I'm a writer who exists on royalties. The figure of $35,000 just to start campaigning is a heady sum.
Anything beyond the AFN limit, which requires submitting a list of expenditures, must come from the candidate's own pocket. So, unless I had financial backers who could foot the bill for a run at national chief, the door is firmly closed.
The reality is that it remains closed for the majority of First Nations people.
The next hill to climb is the platform. In order to garner signatures, a candidate's platform must be geared to issues acceptable to the political palates of the chiefs. As an off-reserve person with a lot of friends in the same demographic as myself, the issues of funded daycare and education curriculum geared to urban native kids, say, don't carry the same cachet as treaty implementation and property rights.
Despite the fact that the majority of First Nations people reside in urban centres, their issues and concerns lag far behind those of the chiefs. Consequently, off-reserve concerns are given short shrift. As it sits today, the voice of the chiefs is the determinant of the political motions for all First Nations people.
My potential platform would be a hard sell. I would stand for things like the protection of our languages and the security and honouring of our women. I would stand for keeping our children out of foster care, native control of native education and breakfast programs everywhere. I would stand for guidelines for the election of chiefs; that they be sober, educated, principled and culturally and spiritually centred.
I would be a voice of inclusion; the idea that unless we inform Canadians of who we are, our issues and concerns, our realities - that if we don't build bridges, we allow them to rust. I would institute regular press conferences to discuss those things. I would retool the entire communications department toward regular release of information. I would stand for transparency and accountability.
I would stand for the protection of our lands, for regular First Nations-Crown gatherings with the provincial premiers, the prime minister and representatives of urban First Nations people. I would stand for bringing the urban native voice and the voices of our women into the assembly. I would stand for the voice of the people.
So, maybe, in the end, it's best that I can't run - the sound of defeat would be resounding.
Richard Wagamese is the 2012 recipient of the National Aboriginal Achievement Award for Media and Communications.