Letter: An Anishinaabe-kwe elder reflects on the federal election

Unlikely to vote unless one of the leaders can address these concerns

To the Expositor:

None of the politicians running for prime minister in the upcoming federal election have said anything remotely of importance to me. For example, not one of them has acknowledged that the lands on which Canada was made are Indigenous lands. Our ancestors did not sell our lands to foreign entities. In fact, the British treaty commissioners, when making treaties with the “Indians” realized that they could not afford the principal price of the lands they wanted, so they looked at the interest on the principal of the land prices. They realized that they could not afford that either. Finally, they proposed interest on the interest of the principal price of the lands they desired. This became known as an “annuity in perpetuity,” which is how the $4 a year treaty payment came to be. And because there was a huge gap in understanding—the British treaty commissioners spoke 1850 English and the Anishinaabeg spoke 1850 Anishinaabemowin—there was no real understanding or agreement about what the treaty was about. Anishinaabeg did not sell Anishinaabe lands. Anishinaabeg agreed only to “share” the land and the resources. It is unfathomable that Anishinaabeg would agree to give up 99 percent of the lands that they held original title, allodial title, and underlying title to. Who in their right minds would give up lands that had been in their possession for the last 35,000 years? Who in their right minds would give up resources that provided their livelihoods for the last 35,000 years?

Nevertheless, what has happened is that Indigenous peoples have been relegated to a mere one percent of our former homelands. And on that one percent happens all manner of mischief. For example, there are organizations that follow misguided or incomplete governance systems. Rules and practices are changed willy-nilly depending on the mood of the mob. Sometimes band councils will say, “oh no, that is a matter between individuals and we are not intervening” even though it is the place of the band council to recognize, apply and enforce traditional Anishinaabe laws. Other times a band council will say, “that organization operates independently and our umbrella does not encompass them.” Then, the chief of that same band council will intervene in the “independent” organization, and order the police to have personnel removed from the organization. So which is it—an independent arms-length organization, or an organization under the band council’s umbrella? Who knows? On the rez, it’s all a “grey” area—sort of like the Wild West days of yore.

There is a concept called “financial predation” in which folks on the rez will see situations of scarcity, when in fact there is abundance. The scarcity that the rez folks see is the limited pots of shuneyah (money) that is allotted to band councils, to social service organizations, to sport and recreation groups, and to language and culture organizations. The problem arises when volunteers agree to serve on boards of directors or “steering committees.” Once the volunteers are installed on boards or steering committees, they fail to realize that they are there to serve, not to extract, from the organization. So the volunteers misunderstand their purpose on the governance structures of the organizations they purport to serve, thinking that they are entitled to fees, or stipends, or salaries. Once they realize that their volunteer work cannot be salaried or waged they become upset at their own misapprehension or their own misunderstanding. Then they scapegoat the most convenient party at hand—the staff. 

So what’s the remedy? There are many possibilities: Organizational governance education, or leadership development training, or even community-wide devising of Anishinaabe systems of governance. It is dangerous and unproductive for folks on the rez to continue operating organizations, groups, or councils with rules and practices that change at the drop of a hat. That only leads to chaos, organizational failure, community anomie, and ultimately jeopardizes funding that comes from outside sources. Of course, on any rez in the country, there are dedicated, hard-working people whose efforts contribute to a better life for their clients.

What’s the connection between rez reality and the federal election? It is this—what happens on the rez is a microcosm of what goes on in the outer world. If corruption is allowed to go unchecked, if organizations do not learn how to govern ethically, the health of the organizations and the people they serve is put at risk, so that no real progress can be made. So, lack of good drinking water, lack of housing, financial predation, addictions, poverty, homelessness and violence against women continue to plague our communities in our own homelands. Am I gonna vote? Likely not, unless any one of the politicians can address even one of the matters brought forward. Na haaw, mii sa iw. 

Marie McGregor Pitawanakwat

Birch Island