As a former chief of the Hupacasath First Nation, a past executive member of the First Nations Summit and currently a visiting professor of business and law at the University of Victoria, Judith Sayers has long been one of B.C.’s most prominent natives, with a reputation for seeking solutions over confrontation. But there she was last week, part of the Idle No More highway blockade near Victoria. Afterward, Ms. Sayers talked with The Globe and Mail about her support for the burgeoning movement, and her unhappiness with current native leadership.
How was the protest?
I didn’t plan to go, but I was checking Twitter and felt a real need to join the people. It’s such a good feeling to be with people of one mind, walking, hearing the drums and the singing, and just listening to people.
What brought you to Idle No More, which is very much outside the formal channels you’re used to?
Well, those formal channels aren’t getting us anywhere. I have always said we need leaders who are going to put our issues on the front page, make them election issues. None of us, including myself, have been able to do that. I see this movement able to do that. It’s amazing. Our people have never really taken this kind of initiative before. It’s across the ranks. All of the issues have come to a boiling point.
But what are the issues? There seem so many.
Obviously, the biggest issue right now for everybody has been the unilateral imposition of legislation that is affecting us in every way. It’s just too much. Secondly, so many of us are facing major developments in our territories, while environmental laws are stripped. People are beginning to understand this is going to affect our rights. Then, of course, there are all the social conditions people live in. Chief Theresa Spence is all about that message.
Do you think it’s time for Chief Spence to end her protest? It’s causing a lot of confusion.
She has a vision for her own people that she’s fasting for, and I’m not going to tell her not to do that. So I continue to pray for her. I really fear what could happen if [she dies]. I think there will be mayhem. I don’t understand why it was so hard to get the Governor-General to sit in on the meeting with the Prime Minister.
Shouldn’t only Assembly of First Nations leaders be at these government meetings?
We’ve got to change how we’re doing business. The chiefs can’t do what they want any more. They need to start talking with their communities. The AFN is not the rights holder. It’s an advocacy group to do some of the upper-level strategies. But it’s first nations who have to be consulted.
What about all the divisions? I know you were unhappy that Regional AFN Chief Jody Wilson-Raybould from B.C. attended the meeting with the Prime Minister.
I tweeted at her: “How are you there?” Where does she get her authority from? She didn’t reply. If she wanted to go to the meeting, she should have called an emergency meeting of the chiefs. If they had said ‘yes,’ I’d have had no problem with it.
How much of a problem are these differences of opinions?
Part of it is organizational. There’s no doubt [Grand Chief Shawn Atleo] was in a very difficult position, about whether to meet with the Prime Minister. But I would have loved it, if he’d gone in front of all those people and explained why he’s going. Instead, he snuck in the back door. What kind of a leader is that? That really bothered me.
Without perceived leaders and a clear-cut agenda, people movements often fade away. How can Idle No More avoid that fate?
They are trying to figure out the best strategy. We’re having these conversations in the longhouses and everywhere else. There’s a lot of work to be done, but there’s so much enthusiasm, more than I’ve ever seen. This is creating dialogue that hasn’t happened for a long, long time.
Can it last?
I think change is in the air. What kind of change, I don’t know. But in my 30 plus years in politics, I’ve never seen this kind of an action before. Never. My hope is that we can create the change and dialogue we need, because what’s there now is just not working. Conditions have got to change. If there was a better way to do this, we’d be doing it.
What about B.C.? Do we have a better record on aboriginal matters than other provinces?
Yeah, until this latest premier. I haven’t seen a lot of progress from her.