A Journey Among the First Nations

MEDIA REPORTING of the Assembly of First Nations’ Annual General Assembly, in Whitehorse, focused on the theme of intertribal warfare. The question topmost on every reporter’s jotting pad, it seemed, was this: Could the Manitoba Grand Chief Derek Nepinak recruit enough First Nations chiefs to establish a parallel organization — the “National Treaty Alliance”? Never you mind that Nepinak himself downplayed the talk of schism: the Indian wars, of every kind, draw attention.

The former National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, Phil Fontaine, today observes a careful distance from politics. It happens I talked to him from his Nelson, British Columbia summer home at the time of the July AFN gathering. “This is the first time in twenty-one years that we’ve gathered here,” noted the present Chief, Shawn A-in-chut Atleo. I reminded Phil Fontaine that it was at an Assembly gathering in Whitehorse, in 1990, that he raised for the first time the topic of Indian residential schools. The AFN chiefs were of various minds, some thanking him for breeching the wall and others offering a stern rebuke. Phil Fontaine told the assembled chiefs that this abuse had to be meaningfully dealt with if they wanted to see improvements on other fronts. The then National Chief departed Whitehorse for Toronto, where he was approached by the reporters who would expose the biggest Canadian news item of the late 1990s and early 2000s.

This is my roundabout way of saying that there was at least one reporter in the media in the early 1990s who had a nose for the news. In 2013, by contrast, was there anyone covering the Native beat who was informed enough to tease out the historical significance of Whitehorse in the AFN’s history? Perhaps, but the reporters all fell as one into the ready confabulation. The AFN, they decided, was about to split. Think Sunni against Shi’ite, radical versus moderate, or any of the other superficial and shopworn templates by which the news is manufactured, sausage-like.

I would say there has never been a more solid consensus among First Nations people in this country. I’ve had the privilege of travel, of conversation, and of acquaintanceship. I’ve had discussions with most of the National Chiefs going back to the 1980s, as well as with a great many lesser-known but thoughtful people. At present I’m working on a series of longform interview based articles in which I’m trying to answer a simple but elusive question: how do indigenous communities propose to arrange their affairs? It is not only an absorbing but an important topic. The collective aboriginal population — Métis, First Nation and Inuit — is growing at four times the Canadian average. Sixty percent of indigenous people in Canada are under thirty-five. This is a young and rapidly expanding demographic, ignored or marginalized at great peril.

For this and other reasons I will be presenting to you, dear readers, the fruits of my recent labours over the next few weeks. I do hope you will follow me as I undertake this lesser-taken journey.

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