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During all the hoopla over the return of Canada's constitution, the 69 Indian chiefs in Saskatchewan made their own mark in history. On April 16, the day before the Queen arrived in Canada to officially turn over a constitution which only promises a gloomier future for Canada's Indians, the chiefs and officially signed a political convention of their own, formally setting into motion an indian Government designed to rebuild the Indian Nations of Saskatchewan.
This convention formalized a new structure for the FSI, changing its status as a non-profit organization to a legal and political Federation of Indian Nations
As outlined clearly in the convention, the restructure, now known as the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations, gives the chiefs control of all the functions of government at the band, district and provincial levels. The Chiefs further agreed to form an Indian legislative assembly. According to FSIN, First Vice-President, Doug Cuthand, the assembly is to be composed of chiefs who will have the authority to pass legislation and resolutions based on the principle of consensus rather than confrontation.
Taking yet another major step toward the reality of Indian government, the Chiefs also signed a Memorandum of Agreement defining a governmental system along with the responsibilities for bands to work together at the district level.
Rather than moving too hastily into abrupt change, the chiefs then instructed the present FSIN executive to stay in office until the next general assembly to be held in October. This, the chiefs felt, would give the executive and themselves time to work out more
Meanwhile, acting on the mandate by the chiefs, the FSIN reorganization committee has come up with a report recommending options to the chiefs for the basic internal restructuring of the federation. The report, which the committee is by now presenting to the chiefs at district meetings, gives the chiefs an opportunity to carefully study a number of options for the legal status of the FSIN, the role of the executive, and the type of elections to be used at the provincial level of Indian government. "We don't want to go to the chiefs with ironclad things," Cuthand said, "We want to show them a number of options and then they'll make up their minds."
As a member of the re-organization committee, Cuthand said their aim is to get the chiefs to thoroughly understand the options recommended so that by the time the general assembly is held this fall "they'll be able to speak to it or ratify it just like that."
The future stability of the FSIN will depend mainly on who will he eligible to vote in the provincial executive elections. The report outlines several options for the chiefs: (1) voting privileges for chiefs and four headmen of each of the 69 bands; (2) representation by population (which is the present system of FSIN); (3) chiefs and councillors; or (4) allow all status Indians of Saskatchewan to vote. The committee rejected the last option "since the organization is a federation of chiefs," Cuthand pointed out.
Other matters dealt with in the report offers two options for titles of officers at the provincial executive level. The first choice calls for new titles for all the executive positions, changing the present system of chief and five consecutive vice president to a chief and six vice presidents with equal status.
Further options in the report outline rules and regulations for elections, terms of office, an appeals system, the status of the returning officer, the legal status of FSIN and the decentralization process.
The legal status of FSIN appears to be a major decision for the chiefs to make for it will determine the framework of the organization in its dealings with outside governments. According to the options in the report, the legal status of FSIN can take on either of two forms; (1) unincorporate under Federal or Provincial law where the organization will become a partnership of chiefs rather than an incorporated body. Cuthand compared this kind of partnership to professional establishments such as law and accounting firms.
The second option is to incorporate FSIN as a "holding company" that would function strictly as a legal entity into which funds and other revenue are channelled in and out. "In other words," Cuthand said, "you have the chiefs, the executive of the FSI and we have what you call a holding company which is the FSIN."
The legal status may be the single most important area of Indian government to be dealt with by the chief. But whatever choice is made by the chiefs, becoming a non-profit organization again is out of the question. According to the rules, a non-profit corporation cannot be a political body, which for obvious reasons is an area the FSIN want to stay out of. To exist as a political body for Indian Nations, FSIN can only get its authority from the chiefs. "If you become a non-profit organization," Cuthand explained, "you're getting your authority to exist from the Province of Saskatchewan. Anybody can do that."
The report presents a final option to the chiefs for a way to transfer the FSIN "from a provincially central organization . . . to a decentralized organization with more action in the district," according to Cuthand.
The whole idea for the restructure is to turn over completely the institutions and programs presently under executive control to the districts. Cuthand said the decentralization process won't decrease the size of the FSIN at the regional level. "But again," he pointed out, "it (FSIN) won't get much bigger than it already is." A lot of FSIN programs and institutions are already under the control of the district chiefs' committees. At this point, Cuthand said, their control needs only to be formalized.
Since the signing of the Convention, it is becoming increasingly clear to the Chiefs of Saskatchewan the direction they must take in forming an Indian Government. But there is much work ahead. Chiefs have yet to work out and formalize constitutions at the district and especially, the band levels. Surprisingly enough, the task of officially documenting constitutions at the band level won't mean an agonizing process of re-inventing the wheel. Quite apart from the rules and regulations imposed by the Indian Act, bands have always had unwritten constitutions based on tribal customs. These customs, which outline the basic laws and principles, rights and freedoms of their society must be clearly identified and formalized by documentation to become the official constitution of the band.
Working toward Indian government from a logical and common sense point of view, the chiefs realize their collective vision will not happen overnight.