In many respects, the job of National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations is thankless. That person heads up a 10-armed octopus that governs no territory of its own, but exists to protect treaty rights and advance First Nations interests in a country that fights you, tooth and nail, on everything.
You never satisfy anyone. You serve a three-year term at the behest of 634 First Nations chiefs and councils that are part of the band council system implemented through the Indian Act – the 1876 law that serves, to this day, as a tool of apartheid in Canada. To make things murkier, most of the funding for the AFN comes from Ottawa – an ultimate irony that speaks directly to the Crown-ward relationship that exists between First Nations peoples and the Canadian government.
There are a lot of folks who believe the Assembly of First Nations needs to be dismantled and done away with. There has never been a woman leader, and the AFN is currently undergoing an investigation over allegations of harassment and discrimination based on sexual orientation.
Frustration with the AFN looms so large that National Chief Perry Bellegarde, who has held the position for six years and is not running again, is constant fodder for social-media jokes about his predilection for signing memoranda of understanding with the federal government. That dig speaks to the sheer futility of trying to inch forward with a partner that truly doesn’t want to give back an inch of power anywhere, as affirmed by the hundreds of millions of dollars spent by the Canadian government every year to fight First Nations in court over land, the building of dams and access to resources.
So it clearly takes a unique person to want to step up and enter the mess that is Canada’s relationship with First Nations peoples.
On Wednesday, when nominations opened, Alvin Fiddler, who has spent the past six years as Grand Chief of Nishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN), announced in his home community of Muskrat Dam First Nation, 600 kilometres north of Thunder Bay, that he will stand for the election, which begins online on July 7.
This decision wasn’t easy. After all that the Grand Chief and his family have endured in Thunder Bay, this was an inspired, courageous move. Yes, I am biased. I have had a bird’s-eye view of what Mr. Fiddler, his family and the Nishnawbe Aski Nation have struggled to attain over the past several years against colonial systems of government that were never designed with Indigenous peoples in mind. I have written two books about how colonialism, in its many forms, kills our people in northern Ontario, and about how Mr. Fiddler has had his hands full here – a place where the federal and provincial governments have largely ignored the terms of the treaties that built this country, even though these rights are the laws of the land, enshrined in Section 35 of Canada’s own Constitution.
This is where the majority of Canada’s boil-water advisories are found; where a severe housing shortage has left people in Eabametoong First Nation living in tents in -40 weather; where our people die houseless on the streets of Sioux Lookout.
I have watched Mr. Fiddler and NAN build a public-health system out of nearly nothing – with lightning speed, too, as the global pandemic threatened to take the lives of many Indigenous peoples who are in communities without doctors, nurses or clean running water. Operation Remote Immunity brought the COVID-19 vaccine to every single fly-in community in NAN territory – and it is, rightly, one of his proudest accomplishments.
A couple years back, Mr. Fiddler told me, he was standing on the grounds of St. Joseph’s Indian Residential School, now an elementary school just off Arthur Street in Thunder Bay. He was visiting the giant teepee that NAN erects on that site to mark Orange Shirt Day, the day in late September that we remember all residential school survivors. His daughter, Allie, was with him.
As he stood outside, a pick-up truck drove by slowly. Someone yelled: “Fuck you, Indians.” Mr. Fiddler was himself unfazed. How many times had he faced this hatred, born out of a lack of understanding? But what wounded him was that his daughter had to hear the hate.
That is why Mr. Fiddler has decided to enter the race.
Prime ministers and governments come and go. Treaty rights do not. And incremental change just perpetuates colonial oppression and the crises in communities.
You can’t lose sight of the long view and you can’t shy away from the work that will make this country a better place for all our children. Mr. Fiddler knows this.
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