This summer has seen a swathe of regional indigenous leaders elected across Canada—and may provide a glimpse of what’s ahead for the rocky Indigenous-Crown relationship.
Leaders from the Inuit, Anishinabek, Lenape and Kwanlin Dün nations took up the mantle of regional and national chiefdoms, many of them vowing to assert indigenous self-determination more forcefully.
“I see so much potential, [despite] high suicide rates, inadequate health care, the number of TB diagnoses and other elements affecting our people,” said Terry Audla, new president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK). “It’s a matter of how we organize ourselves to ensure that we actually take advantage of economic development in each area: harvesting, mineral exploration, arts and crafts, tourism. The potentials and the options are endless.”
Audla, elected June 6 to represent Inuit in Canada, said climate change is among the most urgent challenges—particularly as ice sheets melt and herds decline.
“It’s impacting individual hunters,” he said. “People are not being able to read the ice to assist in navigation. It’s become somewhat dangerous to read the unstable ice conditions and shifting winds. We need to increase the hunting and harvesting capacity of our young, to make sure that knowledge is passed on as well.”
Another new northern leader is Mike Smith, elected as the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) Yukon Regional Chief on May 28. Former chief of Kwanlin Dün First Nation, near Whitehorse, Smith joins the AFN executive slate just before the organization chooses its leader July 18.
Other new regional chiefs emphasized that empowerment and decolonization, not simply economic development, are essential to advancing aboriginal well-being.
“We’ve been isolated for a long time,” said Grand Chief Gordon Peters, new head of southern Ontario’s Association of Iroquois and Allied Indians (AIAI). “Since contact, colonial governments have maintained a very strict course to undermine our national identity and disenfranchise us from our homeland. Canada as a country still continues to use all available methods to assimilate and extinguish our national identities.”
Chosen on May 30 to lead the AIAI’s unique alliance of Mohawks, Oneidas, Lanape and Anishinaabe, the member of Delaware Nation said that strengthening the alliance will hopefully also inspire coalitions amongst Indigenous Peoples more broadly.
“Just coming together to share our experiences and solutions is huge,” Peters said. “We’re talking about nation-building in our organization. You can see that right across the country—it’s a state of mind. We have to believe we have inherent rights. We have to believe that with every fiber of our being.”
That effort, for AIAI, means educating members about their rights and responsibilities—and taking a stand to protect the environment.
“There are a number of communities fighting to keep investors and developers off our land, to stop the pollution of our waters, and to make sure our air is good to breathe,” Peters said. “Those are fundamental concerns that everybody talks about.”
Also elected was Ontario Regional Chief Stan Beardy, joining AFN’s executive slate on June 27. Beardy, former chief of Muskrat Dam First Nation, has described his vision as both more proactive and aggressive, with a special focus on economic participation.
Also in Ontario, the sizable Anishinabek Nation re-elected Grand Chief Patrick Madahbee. He concurred with the other new chiefs that self-determination is the central struggle of our time.
“We’re talking about nation-building,” said the member of Aundeck Omni Kaning First Nation. “You can see that right across the country—it’s a state of mind. We have to believe we have inherent rights. We have to believe that with every fiber of our being. If we believe in that, things will happen. But we have to make it happen right across First Nations country.”
His plans include developing tribal child-welfare legislation, an aboriginal education authority and law-making jurisdiction, including a return to issuing Anishinabe passports, a decades-old initiative.
“It emphasizes that we never gave up our governments, our sovereignty,” he said, recalling traveling to Europe in the 1980s using his Anishinaabe passport, despite its not being recognized by Canada. “We’re trying to occupy the field. We have an Anishinaabe national economic blueprint. I’m not talking about postage-stamp-size reserves in our territories, but our full territories.”
Madahbee’s re-election, and that of other regional chiefs, may give a sense of the pulse in Indian country these days. Increasingly dissatisfied with the Crown–First Nations relationship, many of the new chiefs are pushing to assert Indigenous rights more forcefully.
“We’ll engage these governments,” Madahbee said. “But at end of the day, if we rely on them, we’ll be waiting a long time.”