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Headshot of Jeffrey Simpson. (Brigitte Bouvier/Brigitte Bouvier/For The Globe and Mail)
Headshot of Jeffrey Simpson. (Brigitte Bouvier/Brigitte Bouvier/For The Globe and Mail)

Jeffrey Simpson

Small numbers are a hard reality for first nations Add to ...

More than 500 chiefs just re-elected Shawn Atleo as national chief of the Assembly of First Nations. Mr. Atleo easily saw off a number of challengers, winning a convincing victory on the third ballot.

Some chiefs apparently did not turn up, since more than 600 first nations are registered as organized groups under the Indian Act. Still, 540 chiefs made it to Toronto for the vote.

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Statistics Canada tells us that as of 2006, there were about 785,000 Indians, or members of first nations, in Canada. Even if that number has grown, it would mean that each chief voting in Toronto represented, on average, only about 1,500 people.

Obviously, some chiefs represent much larger groups, including some numbering in the tens of thousands of people. Others, however, represent groups of only a few hundred. More than half of Canada’s aboriginal people (that would include Métis and Inuit) live in cities, so the numbers living on reserves where the chiefs really do govern is often depressingly small.

By contrast, the House of Commons has 308 members representing 34.5 million people. On average, each MP represents approximately 112,000 people. Some MPs, such as those in tiny Prince Edward Island, represent far fewer than the average; others, such as in suburban ridings, represent many tens of thousands above the average. But the MP with the fewest number of constituents still represents more people than all but a couple of chiefs within the AFN.

Sheer math would suggest that aboriginals are over-governed, with too many chiefs for very small populations. But then that is part of the Indian reality: very small populations on scattered reserves, with different cultural traditions, struggling to keep native languages alive (less than a quarter of Indians can converse in their historic tongues) on land bases that range in size and quality.

No matter the rhetoric of self-affirmation, populations of a few hundred people, or a few thousand for that matter, will struggle to provide even some of the services of a modern state, which is what the word “sovereignty” is all about, in practical if not rhetorical terms.

So a certain amount of self-kidding goes on in aboriginal Canada about the gap between what is demanded as historic rights and the capacity of small groups to deliver the programs in a modern society and industrial/service economy that flow from those rights.

It is now the common coin of discourse to demand that more revenues from natural resource exploitation be shared with the first occupants of the lands in question. The Canadian Council of Chief Executives has just reiterated this important point. These kinds of arrangements are already in place and working rather well in various parts of Canada: northern Saskatchewan and the uranium industry, some bitumen companies around Fort McMurray, Alta., various forestry projects.

Some Indian groups are remarkably entrepreneurial; others want little to do with the rest of society. And there is every attitude in between. Some groups want the jobs and money that resource exploitation can bring; others fear environmental degradation and the disruption of their “traditional” ways of life – ways that usually leave practitioners economically poor, although perhaps spiritually satisfied. You can see this split in northern British Columbia along the path of the proposed Enbridge pipeline from the bitumen deposits of northern Alberta to the Pacific Coast.

The sharing of resources is alluring and useful for those near resource exploitation projects. Sharing does nothing for those groups situated far from this action. What such sharing might do for band members who have left for the cities remains unclear; it would all depend on how the band itself shared the money.

Mr. Atleo, in his concluding remarks, asserted that the time had come for “indigenous people” to take their “rightful place” in our respective territories. Defining “rightful place” at a high level of rhetoric and legal rights is often much easier than finding that “place” in practical terms for diverse peoples, small in numbers, ever mindful of past indignities, proud of tradition but impossible to generalize about constructively.

 

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