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Aaron Joseph Bear Robe is pictured outside his Toronto office on Thursday May 8, 2014. (Chris Young For the Globe and Mail)

Aaron Joseph Bear Robe is pictured outside his Toronto office on Thursday May 8, 2014.

(Chris Young For the Globe and Mail)

What lies ahead for aboriginals Add to ...

Headlines this week focused on major upheavals in First Nations politics and policy. The Globe’s Kathryn Blaze Carlson talked to successful aboriginals in fields ranging from sports to small business about their view of the news – and what lies ahead

Handout

DOUG RIFFEL

This former Wabauskang First Nation chief founded a forestry company just off-reserve in Northern Ontario in 1997. Since then, Mr. Riffel says annual revenues of Makoose Wood Innovations, which employs eight local workers, are just over $1-million.

The future of aboriginal leadership:

The most significant problem right now, says Mr. Riffel, is different levels of First Nations governance bumping heads: the Grand Chief of a treaty area, for example, advocating for bands that want to speak for themselves. The future lies in more band council transparency – telling community members exactly what certain programs do, where the money goes and how the chief spends his or her time – and in individuals taking responsibility for their lives.

The future of the AFN:

Whomever is elected national chief should be willing to build a relationship with Ottawa and the resource development sector: “It’s not the chief’s job to say, ‘No, no, no,’ to the government. [The chief is there] to represent the people.”

Biggest aboriginal challenge:

Dependency. “The reality is we need to evolve and have economies and structured governments. Those are things we need to do on our own ... You can throw money at problems all you want, but it’s really about developing the capacity internally.”

Biggest professional challenge:

Industry and government were initially reluctant to recognize his business: “There’s a feeling that if it’s not band-owned then it’s not legitimate. But that’s changing. All we want is the chance.”

Greatest sign of hope:

“It’s a whole new world for our kids,” says, Mr. Riffel, a 41-year-old father of five who earned his CGA certification at night after work. “They have the confidence to know they can do whatever they want to do.”

Darren Calabrese for the Globe and Mail

KENT MONKMAN

A celebrated multidisciplinary artist of Cree and Irish ancestry, Kent Monkman’s work has been featured across the country, including at the National Gallery of Canada, the Art Gallery of Ontario and at Rideau Hall. He grew up in Winnipeg.

The future of aboriginal leadership:

Mr. Monkman points out that at the height of Idle No More, Prime Minister Stephen Harper refused to meet with one of its key figures, Chief Theresa Spence. What’s ahead, he says, “is going to depend on whether the Harper government acknowledges the legitimacy of aboriginal voices as the structure [of aboriginal leadership] is changing.”

The future of the AFN:

“It could go toward a more conciliatory direction, or the opposite,” he says. “Who knows. I can’t predict which way it will go.”

Biggest aboriginal challenge:

Treaty issues and governance structures defined by the Indian Act. “There needs to be a redefining of the relationship with the Crown.”

Biggest professional challenge:

The “ghettoization” of aboriginal art in museums. “You get kind of relegated to the aboriginal wing, instead of just being considered a contemporary artist. That still happens.”

Greatest sign of hope: “First Nations youth have become much better at defining themselves. First Nations people have become much better, through social media, at showing a kind of collective force.”

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

ELLEN MELCOSKY

Ellen Melcosky, a 66-year-old of Shuswap heritage, heard “no” from nearly every lender she approached to fund her gourmet smoked salmon business. But 20 years later, her secret recipe is sold in stores worldwide. Her company, Little Miss Chief, employs local fishermen and artists, and is packaged and warehoused in British Columbia.

The future of aboriginal leadership:

“There are so many smart, young people out there, and I think we’re going to see them taking over some of the leadership roles in the near future,” she says. “That’s what I’m hoping for, anyway.”

The future of the AFN:

Ms. Melcosky says the AFN isn’t so fragile that the resignation of one person threatens its existence or relevance. But for it to thrive, its next leader needs to reconcile the differences across treaty territories and bands. “The problem is we don’t all work together,” she says.

Biggest aboriginal challenge:

“A lot of our people don’t have the means or access to get health care. And the education and health of our people are really important – even understanding how the government works and how to access certain services.”

Biggest professional challenge:

Start-up funds. When banks and bands wouldn’t back her, she turned to friends, family and a provincial organization. A few years later, she was able to secure a grant and a line of credit.

Greatest sign of hope:

Seeing young people at the National Aboriginal Achievement Awards, and how they grabbed opportunity and “totally excelled.”

Handout

JOHN CHABOT

John Chabot, a 51-year-old from the Kitigan Zibi community in Quebec, played for the Montreal Canadiens, Pittsburgh Penguins and Detroit Red Wings, and was the assistant coach for the New York Islanders. He retired in 2001 and now runs the First Assist Initiative, which uses sport to engage with young northern aboriginals.

The future of aboriginal leadership:

“If what we have at the AFN isn’t working, and we can find a better model, then we have to move with the times.” Still, he thinks the AFN remains relevant.

The future of the AFN:

“I’d like to see the AFN, or whatever [the AFN] chooses to be in the future, self-funded by aboriginal communities. We’re funded by the federal government, and that doesn’t give us a firm footing to negotiate.”

Biggest aboriginal challenge:

Education. Mr. Chabot is skeptical of the government’s First Nations education bill. He agrees that First Nations education needs reworking, but he says there wasn’t adequate consultation on the plan.

Biggest professional challenge:

As an “urban Indian,” Mr. Chabot says he sometimes faced prejudice. “I had a teammate one time come up to me and say, ‘You’re not anything like what I thought an Indian would be,’ and I said, ‘What was I supposed to be?’”

Greatest sign of hope:

“We have a strong core of educated First Nations people who have come back to their communities to implement what they’ve learned,” he says. “I’ve seen a huge improvement since the 1980s.”

Handout

ERICA RYAN-GAGNÉ

Erica Ryan-Gagné, 30, started her first salon while working three part-time jobs. She now runs Eri-Cut and Nailed, serving hundreds of clients on the remote island reserve of Skidegate, B.C. and has won several aboriginal achievement awards.

The future of aboriginal leadership:

“The time is now for us to be the change – to be the leaders, to show the way, to teach our children and take responsibility for ourselves.”

The future of the AFN:

“The AFN is absolutely still relevant. [Mr. Atleo] has big shoes to fill.” But the next national chief should be able to unite and inspire. “Not everybody is going to get along and agree ... but the reality is that we need a strong voice.”

Biggest aboriginal challenge:

“There’s a really scary and disheartening dependence on the [federal] government and band government. I’d love for people to wake up, find their gift, take that gift and meet a demand. Make money and take control of their future.”

Biggest professional challenge:

Finding commercial financing for her salon, which eventually came from cash-prize award money and Haida Gwaii Community Futures, a local non-profit.

Greatest sign of hope:

“I remember being at the B.C. Aboriginal Achievement Awards and being in a room with about 800 of the strongest people in aboriginal business in the province – all aboriginal. It was a lightbulb moment. ... I can see, in my community and in other communities, that people are making good decisions.”

Canadian Press

DONALD WORME

Donald Worme, a 53-year-old Cree lawyer from the Kawacatoose First Nation in Saskatchewan, describes himself as a legal warrior – his passion spurred in part from testifying at the trial for the murder of his mother and sister, which he witnessed as a boy. He was a founding member of the Indigenous Bar Association of Canada, served as commission counsel during the Ipperwash inquiry, as legal counsel to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and as lead counsel to the family of Neil Stonechild during an inquiry into the teen’s freezing death.

The future of aboriginal leadership:

“I’m not particularly alarmed by the events as they’ve been unfolding. There’s a new generation of aboriginal people who are well-grounded and who have not been affected, at least as much as the current generation, by the residential schools experience.” He says aboriginal leadership isn’t found solely in elected government, but also at the community and spiritual level.

The future of the AFN:

Mr. Worme won’t comment or speculate. He says he has been involved in several AFN elections, as counsel to the body’s chief electoral officer, and may be involved in future elections.

Biggest aboriginal challenge:

“The underlying issue is the grinding poverty suffered in our communities. And there seems to be no intention, on [the part] of the Canadian state, to live honourably in dealing with aboriginal Canadians according to, for example, the treaties negotiated many generations ago.” At the root of the problem, he says, is a “legacy of colonialism.”

Biggest professional challenge:

Mr. Worme says he’s faced far more obstacles than offers of help. Among the impediments was racism, which he faced during law school, when he received hate mail on a regular basis.

Greatest sign of hope:

“A great deal of young people have seized opportunities before them, and they’re going to continue ahead, notwithstanding the impediments they face everyday.”

Chris Young for The Globe and Mail

AARON JOSEPH BEAR ROBE

The Blackfoot chef and businessman from Alberta’s Siksika Nation grew up on-reserve until he was about 11. In 2011, he made waves with Keriwa Café, a Toronto restaurant featuring aboriginal cuisine. It closed, but Mr. Bear Robe is already working on his next business, the Wine Academy, a wine cellar and social club slated to launch in mid-July.

The future of aboriginal leadership:

“Idle No More is a great movement, keeping people thinking about things, bringing youth into the conversation – aboriginal and non-aboriginal. That’s the future: youth involvement in leadership.”

The future of the AFN:

Whoever is elected to the helm should be pragmatic, and realize there’s a time for activism but also a need for dialogue with Ottawa. “If you’re banging on the door, no one is going to open it. If you knock, people will be more willing to open it and have a conversation.”

Biggest aboriginal challenge:

Economic development. Aboriginal leaders need to figure out how they can give back to their communities, says Mr. Bear Robe. But the federal government also needs to ensure that aboriginals have a seat at the resource development table, both via consultation and revenue-sharing agreements.

Biggest professional challenge:

Mr. Bear Robe says he never thought of himself as an “aboriginal chef,” but rather a chef, period. But when he opened Keriwa Café, customers with preconceived notions about aboriginal food complained. “People commented it wasn’t ‘aboriginal enough’ or ‘traditional enough.’”

Greatest sign of hope:

“There are a lot of people around me who are doing great things,” says Mr. Bear Robe, among them the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business. “They’re pushing forward to support aboriginal entrepreneurship, and I think that’s the way to go.”

Handout

J.P. GLADU

An Ojibwa from Ontario’s Thunder Bay, J.P. Gladu’s father and grandfather were loggers. He, too, became a forestry technician before obtaining his executive MBA and becoming a negotiator on development projects in Northern Ontario and the head of the Toronto-based Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business. Mr. Gladu says he counts Shawn Atleo as a friend.

The future of aboriginal leadership:

Although aboriginal leadership is about more than the AFN, the national body is still relevant – especially for federal-aboriginal relations, says Mr. Gladu. “The AFN needs to exist in order to build consensus amongst First Nations.”

The future of the AFN:

|Though aboriginal leadership is about more than the AFN, the national body is still relevant, Mr. Gladu said. “The AFN needs to exist in order to build consensus amongst First Nations,” he said, referring to the federal-aboriginal relationship.

Biggest aboriginal challenge:

“One of the challenges is around the perception of who we are,” he says, adding, “The more we engage in business and the economy, the stronger we’re going to be.”

Biggest professional challenge:

Even with certification as a forestry technician and a bachelor of science in forestry, Mr. Gladu had trouble finding work in Thunder Bay. Today, though, aboriginals have more “clout” and are viewed as bridge-builders between indigenous communities and corporations, he says. “Now, if a First Nations forester were to come through, they’d be scooped up in a second.”

Greatest sign of hope:

Seeing how inspired and engaged younger aboriginals have become. One prime example: a recent Walter & Duncan Gordon Foundation event celebrating Northern youth for their efforts to improve life in their communities.

Follow on Twitter: @KBlazeCarlson

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