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Roy Fox, Makiinima, is Chief of the Kainai Blood Tribe in southern Alberta and chair of the Indian Resource Council.

The entire country has received a lesson in Indigenous governance this past month, especially regarding the difference between elected political and hereditary chiefs. In the Kainai Blood Tribe, I am both the elected chief and the hereditary chief. My clan has represented the political and economic leaders of the Kainai for more than eight generations, going back to the father of our great warrior Chief Stumicksoosuk. However, our nation decided to move to an electoral system in 1964, so that anyone could run for Council.

And so given how important democratic ideals are in Canada, I have been surprised to see how the voice of elected chiefs have been dismissed or even challenged over the course of the last month, as Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs’ protests against the Coastal GasLink pipeline sparked blockades around the country. Elected chiefs and councils have been described as creatures of the Indian Act, accountable only to the federal government, with responsibility for reserve lands rather than for people. The voices of the 20 councils that had already approved that pipeline were largely marginalized.

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Roy Fox, Chief of the Kainai Blood Tribe in Alberta, asks a question at the Assembly of First Nations' Annual General Assembly in Fredericton on July 24, 2019.

Stephen MacGillivray/The Canadian Press

These mischaracterizations have given space for protesters and even cabinet ministers to pick and choose which Indigenous peoples – and especially which perspectives – they will acknowledge. Carolyn Bennett, the Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations, negotiated an agreement that affects the Wet’suwet’en people without any involvement of that nation’s elected chiefs and councils, for instance. And until he entered self-quarantine for the coronavirus, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had been planning on hosting a First Ministers’ meeting with leaders of national Indigenous organizations. This can hardly be the nation-to-nation-relationship that we were promised. To me, this is one more step in a concerted effort to undermine the voices of chiefs who support resource development; because we do not fit their stereotype, we are ignored.

I don’t think any elected chiefs pretend they are perfect, and constructive criticism and accountability, including through elections, are important. But in my experience, almost to a person, elected chiefs want to empower their people. Too often our current systems, including through the Indian Act, work to deprive our people instead. As elected Chiefs, we are faced with the cold realities of poverty and dependence every day. Our people come to us for housing and an escape from overcrowding. They come to us when they are short on diapers or baby formula. They come to us when they need to cover the costs of a funeral for a loved one or pay tuition fees for themselves or their children. And we bear witness, every day, to the incredible unmet needs of our own people, and the hopelessness, powerlessness and resentment it creates.

Imagine these realities, and understand how inadequate it would be to tell a young mother with hungry kids and no food in her fridge that money is a colonial construct, or that we are going to keep passing on major projects and opportunities in our territories until something that matches our high principles happens to come along.

Many of us have concluded that engagement in resource-development projects is the best way by which to raise our own revenues, enhance our self-determination and provide employment and business opportunities for our members, as we begin to secure financial sovereignty. This is not a guess. I have been Chief of the Kainai, and I have been involved in tribal politics for close to three decades. I have been involved in the Kainai Nation’s oil business for even longer. I know the difference those revenues have had on our ability to fund education, health, recreation, elder and cultural programs. I have also seen the difference having a job can make to the well-being of our members. I can tell you for a fact that government handouts are not a substitute for the dignity of work, for being able to provide for your family.

In order to improve First Nations’ access and involvement in the major projects crisscrossing our territories, the Indian Resource Council, an organization comprised of 130 First Nations and for which I am chair of the board, met last month. Hundreds of participants from Indigenous communities, government and industry gathered to identify solutions and strategies on how we can work together for mutual benefit while protecting workers and the environment. I heard many Indigenous people who work in the oil and gas industry and other major projects standing up and expressing their support for responsible resource development. We saw the path forward.

It’s not always easy to stand up and say things that are unpopular, especially as elected chiefs. I have seen Indigenous people state their pro-pipeline opinions on social media and be dismissed as sell-outs, greedy or corrupt. But as more First Nations people benefit from major projects, you will see more of them telling their stories, and giving their reasons for why they want a strong resource industry inside a strong Canadian economy.

I believe the conflict over Coastal GasLink has not silenced the elected chiefs who are for development. It has emboldened us.

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