Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Will Sagkeeng find a better way?

There are many adjectives used to describe reserves across Canada. Very few possess the very meaning and derivative such as the word ‘Ishkonigan’. Many Canadians wonder why these
"leftover" reserves continue to exist at all. Author David Treuer, an Ojibway from the Leech Lake reservation in Minnesota speaks of this, “What are these places that kill us every day but that we’d die to protect and are like no place else on earth?”

The same issue can be said about Treaty. Why should they remain? Councillor Marilyn Courchene does not preoccupy herself with trying to make sense of it all. Recently appointed Councillor on the Sagkeeng First Nation Chief and Council; she recognizes the sheer magnitude to bring about positive change in her community.  Reflecting on her own election results, she readily admits the outcome is very un-rez like, “I don’t have a large family, so yes in a sense typical family ‘block style’ voting would have made me a long shot.”

This small victory, is a precursor of what Courchene hopes will become the future for her people. Running against the current is never easy, “You have to prove yourself to the community. People know me and what I've done in the past. Every season there was something happening. I was involved in it or I was at the forefront of it. I think that helped me quite a bit.”

Elections on reserves are not a foregone conclusion.  The Canadian Taxpayers Federation insistence on having Chief and Council salaries divulged under the First Nations Financial Transparency Act had a field day across media outlets in 2014. Everyone clamored change; however, under the Indian Act, reserves do not have the authority to establish alternative systems of governance. They have some ability to develop their own election codes, but is subject to AANDC approval. Needless to say, those that do put their names forward face adversity. Especially women.

Efforts across First Nations (FNs) to alter the outcome of the reservation system is a constant irritant. Canadians do not like to be reminded of its colonial past. It pokes and pries open old wounds. It compounds the level of animosity towards indigenous peoples having resisted and continue resisting the assimilation process into the ‘multicultural’ fabric of Canada.

Courchene believes that the process of changing the mindset of indigenous and non-indigenous people alike; begins with small steps. In particular, for the Sagkeeng First Nation this would be the re-introduction of its two fundamental traditional laws, “Give us two three seasons, and we will be okay to pass these laws. Every law has an amendment component to them, so as we go along and find obstacles, then we make adjustments and go back to the people and ask them if we need to change this? And all they have to say is yes or no.”

Sagkeeng is not the first reserve to re-establish traditional laws. Since Idle No More, there seems to be a real push by grassroots activism to incorporate more of what worked prior to the mass colonial influx into their traditional territories. A natural schism arose from this process, among FNs themselves. Traditionalists (Defenders of the Land) among others feel that their needs a permanent shift towards the attitude and policies concerning the harvest of natural resources. This is not exclusive to natural resources however. It extends to self-governance, and obliterating the Indian Act. Indigenous enterprises that are profiteering alongside non-indigenous corporations are seen as ‘sellouts’.

What some within the indigenous community refer to as the elite, “…an oligarchic social structure of society, acceptance that an elite minority makes decisions on behalf of the majority, and thus (to) legitimate a hierarchical decision-making structure.” (Bertrand &Valois, 1980, p173)

FNs do not have clear alternatives. As such, the use of a Chief and Council endures. But it does have the capacity to change, and lead. Courchene believes that at its core; Sagkeeng’s traditional laws will enable the membership to ‘buy-in’ into their own value based way of life. Distinctly different from their rights within the Canadian Charter; and yet parallel to those rights. Once firmly in place, she is of the opinion that ongoing cyclical destructive behaviours will cease. 

Expectations run high. Careful not to offend, Courchene allows her actions, and decision making process speak for themselves. Like her, there are more and more indigenous women, influential women, who are raising their voices and speaking on issues that are affecting their respective communities.  A great number of them reside in urban centers, occupy senior posts in universities, media, and departments of health, justice, and political parties.

The decision is never made easy. Band members who relocate to larger urban centers are not guaranteed a favorable outcome. Lateral violence by their own band members are forcing them to make an impossible choice.
“I find this type of mentality really destructive. Urban band members are spokespersons for our community. This is where they come from, where their parents come from, and they still have the right to cast a ballot. This type of lateral violence against our own people has to stop,”-Courchene.
The arts are fast becoming the medium of choice for indigenous people such as KC Adams to shed common misconceptions of what ‘Indians’ look like, talk like, and behave like. While Adams artistic platform projects an alternate reality; much still needs to be done.

Housing is a national FNs crisis; a crisis in the making actually, “I may have to hire someone to do a survey of all these homes,” stated Courchene. If Sagkeeng’s traditional laws are to succeed, it must be in conjunction with its ability to build, and repair homes. All reserves have either a housing portfolio or management team who are responsible to review applications. The issues are who are admissible, and who are not.

“There are many that take care of their homes. But then again, there are many that don’t,” she explained. It is a very steep curve to climb. Neglect is corrosive. Willful neglect is something else. And for Sagkeeng's Chief and Council, navigating between the two will prove difficult. People who identify themselves as indigenous or M├ętis are the largest growing demographic in Canada. If solutions are to be found, it is certainly among this demographic where answers will come forth.

“The young adults are the ones who are coming up with ideas. Some are mentioning a point system. Some want to start a list. Others want housing to go to people who will take care of these units. My personal conviction is that housing be attached to the child. Whichever party assumes guardianship should live in the house with the child.” While not every idea will see the light of day; Courchene suggests that the leadership remain at arm’s length of the process.

The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation recently reported that, “Manitoba’s Sagkeeng First Nation has the highest number of cases of unsolved missing or murdered indigenous women in Canada.” When including the number of children in the care of Child and Family Services; establishing children at the core of its future housing program, Courchene hopes to considerably decrease those numbers.

While the reservation system brought about unimaginable consequences to FNs; it is their last tangible landmark. On the issue of land most 600 plus Canadian reservations are unanimous. FNs are mandating more land from its traditional territories. This also includes the right and ability to impose its own will as to who, what, when and where can harvest its natural resources.

Crown corporations such as Manitoba Hydro and the Sagkeeng First Nation are experiencing difficulties in reaching a mutual agreement on the matter of compensation. Sagkeeng has numerous dams on its vast territory. Six to be exact. It is an acrimonious piece of business. Unlike other agreements made elsewhere, Sagkeeng band members are not exempt and have to pay the Manitoba Hydro to provide electricity to the community residential and commercial facilities.

This longstanding dispute over utility rates still simmers. Courchene remains steadfast in her opinion that both parties need a resolution, and Manitoba Hydro must come to terms with its past practices concerning the creation of its six dams on Sagkeeng’s traditional territory.  A recent proposal by the crown corporation was nullified by a margin of 260 to 120 in June of 2014.  The $200 million settlement was to operate within a 40 year cycle.

“What I disagreed with was a clause in the agreement where we would lose the ability to make future claims against them. Another consideration was the time-line. On the whole had the membership voted in favour of that agreement, we would have been poorer for it. They (Hydro) have been operating in our territory without a license for the past ten years.  We all know that.”

Using social media such as Facebook is not ideal. But it gives Courchene the opportunity to clearly state developments on the reserve. She explained that using FB as a point of reference to relay information will only be useful if the information given to the people, is not a launching pad to create dissent. 

Time will tell if Courchene’s endeavours bring about the necessary changes needed to make Sagkeeng a place that offer real opportunities for its membership.