What is going on with the National Aboriginal Organizations (NAOs)? By Ellen Gabriel

On July 15, 2017 the Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC) held their Annual General Assembly (AGA) on Treaty 8 territory in Edmonton, Alberta. It included the election of a new president, a position with a term of three years. I entered my name and ran against the incumbent Francyne Joe, and also Doris Anderson, who was President of the Yukon Native Women’s Association.

I have always admired the ability of Indigenous women to face great adversity with dignity and honesty. Indigenous women’s fight has always been for the rights of our families and nations, for justice and equality. This pride in the women of our nations is partly the reason I decided to enter my name for president of NWAC. But I also decided to run so that I could try to bring the ‘democratic’ process of NWAC into the 21st century. Like all the other National Aboriginal Organizations (NAOs) in Canada, the NWAC process of elections does not allow all Indigenous rights holders to have a vote. All NAOs follow the criteria of a non-profit organization; an incorporated body that only allows select delegates of their membership to vote.
This is something that has disturbed me since learning about the NAO election process. In 2012 when I ran for the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) national chief, I was further disturbed and then jolted from the inside of my body at the meanness of certain chiefs and individuals to discredit other candidates. I was told that “a woman has no place being the head of the AFN,” and that it was the men who were the leaders of their people. While shocked to hear this, I was not intimidated, nor was I swayed from running as I come from a proud and strong matrilineal civilization that is not easily disturbed by sexism. I was, however flabbergasted by the amount of money required to run for AFN national chief, which is an astounding $150,000 or so for travel etc. I could not find such sponsorship, and was limited to a one time trip to Toronto.
NAO campaigns are similar to Canadian elections, but even more problematic when it comes to voting, which is limited to ‘grand chiefs’ only. So really, how representative is this? If AFN campaigns can raise this kind of funding for a one shot deal, then why can we not provide adequate funding for our endangered languages? Where is the money for culture, the funding for post-secondary education, for care for our children and elderly? Why are these such hard sells to those with deep pockets?
It continues to be a challenge to fight the colonial government of Canada and its provinces with their own deep pockets. These governments influence the choice of leadership who must then be comfortable in promoting the colonial imposed hierarchy; a colonial imposed system with no power and which has only benefited Canada and not Indigenous peoples. Indigenous communities have been forced to follow the colonial road of “incorporation” in order to receive funding. We must follow Western forms of governance and decision making, which contradict our traditional laws and teachings. Incorporation may be good for running businesses, but it creates havoc when it comes to the implementation and upholding of Indigenous peoples’ human rights. It is exclusive and dysfunctional and not conducive to a real democracy. This is a major struggle for Indigenous peoples to change as it promotes divisions and causes us to lose more of our rights to self-determination.
INAC has been coercively dictating to NAOs like NWAC on what their priorities will be and it’s been doing this for decades. They like to keep us busy responding to problems that they create while adding more to the roster. Government decides on when it’s time for things like reconciliation or a national inquiry but offering flowery statements of how important Indigenous peoples are to Canada is just smoke and mirrors that belies the truth of the colonial agenda that remains on the table.
Canada remains steadfast in the comfort of colonization, unwilling to relinquish its hold in the goal of assimilation. As the first Minister of Indian Affairs, Duncan Campbell Scott stated his goal was of ‘getting rid of the Indian problem.’ With the pretense of reconciliation, his goal has the potential of being reality.
As a Kanien’kehá:ka person I thus consciously entered into the AFN process with the knowledge that all Onkwehón:we peoples do not have a voice in decision making processes that affect our lives. I knew that there was very little chance to win because of the heavy handed politics we’ve learned so well from the colonizer. But I wanted to send out a strong public message: as women we know the double challenges we have to gain respect for our perspectives. Many chiefs did help and advise me during this time and I deeply value their precious advice and support.
While the issue of status is very important for our families to achieve justice and equality, I believe that NWAC must evolve with the times we are living in and look at the realities our nations are facing. Restoring the role of Onkwehón:we women in the decision making processes of our nations means that in every conference, event or negotiation, Onwkehón:we women must be sitting at the table dealing with issues like climate change, land rights, health, education and all the issues affecting our realities. In order to do so we must change the mindset of our own people; we must deal openly and honestly on all issues and agree to disagree. We cannot continue to compartmentalize each issue or say that women deal solely with status or violence.
NWAC started out as a representative organization through the blood sweat and tears of our precious pioneer women like Mary Two Axe Early, and they did so without any funding; just a passion and will for justice. Today NAOs face many challenges in their advocacy work. Although this has made headway at the international level we see little change at the community level.
If we look at Idle No More, anti-pipeline work and other activism, it appears that the NAO leaders do not pay serious attention to grassroot movements. Yet while it may not be popular to criticize Government and its links to big business interests, Grassroots activist are breaking through the exclusion barriers with their influence through social media, and are demanding their voices be heard. And the effectiveness of this work means that NAO leaders often ride upon the coat tails of community activists.
We also know that Onkwehón:we women have persevered throughout time, giving of their time, energy, and wisdom without titles, with little funding, in some cases with little support; a true mark of their sincerity for the love of their children, their nations and their gender. It has been Onkwehón:we women who have made the changes to the Indian Act, as they shamed Canada at the international level.
In terms of the NWAC elections, I was deeply moved by the support I received by the delegates and honoured to have Tanya Kappo as my scrutineer. My strength was with the Quebec Native Women
delegation and other regions, whose encouragement and support to continue inspired me, in spite of the long voting process lasting over 27 hours. The wise words by Viviene Michel, Marilyn Buffalo, Tracee Diabo and Bev Jacobs to follow my heart regarding whether or not to continue brought me strength, and helped me to decide what to do.
NWAC’s system of elections, by-laws and the constitution are flawed and are the reason why we had to go nine rounds of votes. The winner had to achieve 60% of the votes to be declared the winner; a change in the by-laws and constitution thanks to Stephen Harper’s legacy that required changes to non-profit organizations.
My decision to withdraw my name was because I watched how the elders and women were getting tired. It was thus an uncomfortable atmosphere of unkindness and disrespect which caused me to withdraw my name from the election, even though they had not yet announced the results of the 9th round. I felt that perhaps my energy should be spent at home fighting our 300 year old land struggle.
I decided that I could not in good conscious be a part of a process that imbued the colonial characteristic of winning at any cost; a quality that has been so engrained in all the NAO organizations that profess to represent us. I withdrew my name with a heavy heart knowing that I disappointed so many women. But their bright love and support has left me with strength and more determination to keep on this path of justice and equality for Onkwehón:we Nations; to them I say niawenkó:wa – a big heartfelt thank you.
I consider that I have won my liberty to speak, to use my freedom to draw from the teachings of my ancestors and continue the fight against colonization and its continued efforts to assimilate and dispossess the First Peoples of Turtle Island. At NWAC and the AFN Assembly I spoke honestly and openly about the changes which we must enact to successfully proceed into the future. I am always guided by those teachings our ancestors fought so hard to pass on to our generation. In my 27 years of activism, I seeing that only the semantics of government has changed and that the status quo remains; dispossession and institutionalized racism. And so, in spite of the many human rights gains we have accomplished internationally, we are no closer to the change we seek as Indigenous nations.
I have no regrets for entering both election processes nor for withdrawing my name at NWAC’s AGA. I wish for strength and respect for Francyne Joe in the job that lies ahead for her. To all the NAO leaders, I ask that they be part of the solution and help break the cycle of colonization; listen to the Onkwehón:we people of our nations and not Canada, for they have shown their true intent to continue assimilation and land theft.

There is no reconciliation if it means Canada’s assertion of its sovereignty over our un-ceded lands and territories continues. Indigenous women must be equal partners in the solutions and the people of our nations must be equal and full participants in all decisions made affecting our human rights.
For the sake of future and present generations,
Skén:nen – Peace to all and I pray that my words do not offend anyone.
Katsi’tsakwas Ellen Gabriel

Turtle Clan from the Kanien’kehá:ka Nation in Kanehsatà:ke


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