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AFN Chief Ovide Mercredi speaking at
FSIN All Chiefs Legislative Assembly
In the early days of organizing, leaders such as Dave Ahenakew, George Manual, John Tootoosis and others were the men with the vision and energy to begin the first organizations.
Later the builders came along. People such as Sol Sanderson and others set up and built the network of Indian institutions that we enjoy today.
The next generation of leaders are going to benefit from the work of the pioneers, but the demands on them will be much different and in some ways greater.
Ovide Mercredi is an example of the new generation of leaders. He is educated, articulate and has a strong social conscience.
Indian leaders carry more weight than the other Canadian politicians. Indian politicians must address all the economic, social and political issues that face their people.
Other Canadian politicians tend to be hackneed lawyers with enormous egos and very little pride. The result is that the public is cynical and down on their leaders. The opposite is happening in Indian Country.
Indian people are rallying around their leaders in unprecedented numbers. An example of this is the recent Treaty Conference in Edmonton that drew over 1500 delegates and observers.
Our people from all across the West saw to it that they came out to a meeting of considerable importance.
Ovide Mercredi addressed the Chiefs at the recent Chiefs Legislative Assembly.
At first he addressed the issues surrounding the constitutional process.
"We are making progress in terms of persuading people that we have rights as Indigenous people. There is a lot of work to be done before we can convince our white brothers and sisters that we are equals. And I don't mean equals in a sense of individual equality. I mean equals in the context of collective rights, in the context of collectivities".
"When you stop being controlled by the Indian Act and you start acting as a free man and a free woman and you stand tall on the heritage of your people, you are not inferior to anybody and that is the vital symbolic importance to the inherent right to self government".
"When we try to protect the Treaties in the Constitution, as we must, it is not the same as saying to the Government of Canada, you can decide for us in the future what these rights mean. We are using the Constitution, again their supreme law, to tell them to honour the spirit and the intent of the Treaties'.
"We are not just seeking recognition of the inherent right. We want federal obligations to be entrenched in the Constitution for Indian people. We want Treaty obligations to be honoured by the Government of Canada because we recognize that the inherent right without Fiscal resources for housing, for education, for health care and so on is not going to mean anything for our people.
Chief Mercredi then turned to matters of a more personal nature.
"It is not easy for me to put a human face to the AFN. I am a very private person. I am also a very quiet individual and most of all I am a very serious man".
"Part of our job is to make ourselves stronger, to make each other stronger. And I've wondered how we do that myself. I am coming slowly to the realization that you do not become strong by politics.
Power politics in the community, in our organizations, do not heal our people but they create more problems that divide our people. So we have to do more than just become politicians as leaders. We have to, I think, try to escape the Indian Act and we have to try to operate with the traditions and the values of our society.
"The principle of respect, and if you consider it, kindness, a very simple principle, goes a long way to healing people. In our communities, when we grew up, we were taught at least those two basic principles from the time we were crawling until to the time we left home - respect and kindness".
"So the challenge for us is not so much the Constitution. The challenge is how we heal ourselves. The challenge is how much faith we have in our own way of doing things and how willing are we to sacrifice our individual advancement for the sake of the community'.
"You see I am an optimist. I have full confidence in my people. I know we are in pain. I know we are suffering. I know we have problems, social problems. But I also believe that we have the knowledge, we have the talent and we have the strength to change life for the better'.
The strongest members of our society are Indian women. Our men, many of our men have fallen and they have fallen because they have lost confidence in themselves. They have fallen because they have given up because there are no opportunities for them and they feel inadequate because they cannot meet the social and economic requirements of their families. But the women have maintained the hope. They have maintained the prospects for a better future and our men are beginning to heal'.
"That's why I say that I am an optimist about our future because I know that when we come together as men and women, as Elders and children, for the collective good of our people and the advancement of our communities and our societies, not only will we benefit, but Canada as a whole will benefit".