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Gary LaPlante

SASKATCHEWAN INDIAN      JANUARY 1993      v22 n01 p03  
Gary LaPlante
As the United Nations' Year of the Indigenous Peoples is upon us, I notice that the general Indigenous population is largely indifferent or is not aware of the fact. Nevertheless, it seems that for the average sister or brother on the street or out on the land, it doesn't much matter, it just adds to the confusion.

The confusion I refer to is the absence of a collective vision of Indigenous people locally, regionally, nationally and internationally. In fairness to all sides within the Indigenous population, I believed that there is common concern for the wellbeing of our people as a whole. So why is it so difficult to work together toward attaining that common objective?

This past year I have witnessed examples of disunity at each level. Internationally, there were at least three Indigenous groups at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in June, who in their own way purported to represent all the Indigenous delegations. Personally, I felt that the World Council of Indigenous Peoples (WCIP) should have been the coordinating group. Unfortunately, some of us arrived after they had hosted a gathering and the gathering we attended was not hosted or even, to my knowledge, attended by the more notable leaders of the WCIP. This session was at the Global Forum, where there were thousands of people around. It was the Indigenous people of the rainforest who were the attraction of non-Indigenous people to come to observe. The Indigenous gathering was largely disorganized due to outside interest groups and media, because the organizers were accommodating them rather than the agenda. At the time, I also had an amusing and somewhat sad discovery. It seems the Indigenous people of Central and South America believe that there are no Indigenous people in North America; that we are a watered down version of what Indigenous people really are. It seems to me that I've come across that attitude before, a little closer to home.

On the national front we had the opportunity to amend the Constitution of Canada to enhance and protect our rightful place in Canadian society. First our people could not agree on the right process to seize the opportunity. In this case it was the bilateral vs. multilateral process. Then there was disagreement if it was indeed an opportunity at all. The belief held by some regional Indigenous leaders is that the whole Constitutional strategy, on the part of the government of Canada, was to further undermine the sovereignty of First Nations.

Regionally, in the province of Saskatchewan, it is economic development that has brought out the most prevalent differences that exist within the Indigenous population in Saskatchewan. Noticeably, in the past year, it has been in the areas of forestry and Indian gaming that the general public has witnessed the divisions. Generally, the democratically elected leadership want to deal with the dismal socioeconomic conditions which a great many Indigenous people still face. Considering that the general economy has been in a slump for some time now, there are not a lot of options out there to create wealth for First Nations and employment for the largely unemployed. As well, there is the growing conviction among business and political-minded Indigenous people that if development at this point in time is going to take place, then we will be a part of it, front and centre, and the derived benefit will be redirected accordingly. Then there are those that oppose this type of development, struggling to maintain the status quo,leaving the land in its natural state, believing that wealth creation for Indigenous peoples and employment opportunities must come in a different form.

The gaming issue was different from the forestry issue in that differences were at the leadership level. While at one time First Nations agreed to pursue this opportunity in a collective manner for the benefit of all, some First Nations opted out of the collective approach in order to enhance prospective benefit of their own First Nations. Outside interests like the Provincial Government then found it easier to undermine the collective opportunity.

Locally, there are differences over the direction Indian Government is going. While a certain chief and council want to enter into an Alternate Funding agreement, which is being made more readily available to First Nations governments, for some of the people at the grassroots level for whom the oral tradition is still the way, it is all part and parcel of the devolution process of the Department of Indian Affairs, seen by them as relinquishment of responsibility by the Government of Canada.

Again the collective will is not there. While some are ready to participate in and encourage the devolution process, there are those who believe that not only is the Crown allowed to relinquish its responsibility, there is also a strong belief that the terms and timing are not right. Which side is right will probably vary from First Nation to First Nation while it will work in one place it may not work the next. As well, there are the divisions that exist between on- and off-reserve Indians. Here again there is confusion. The situations are far more complicated than what little I have discussed here. The differences exist and have divided the people and that is a problem.

At the end of the day, we should be aware that, on all sides, there is real concern for the future well being of our people and knowing this, it should be easier to respect one another and if we must take different means to achieve the same end, with respect there will be fewer recriminations and less strife among us. The divisions among us, which will persist, should not blind us to the real efforts and genuine concern for our people that we all have and the prescription for respect, handed down from our ancestors, should be one of the traditional values that we hold close and practice for the benefit of all peoples. If we can move closer to achieving this in 1993, the International Year of Indigenous Peoples, then we will have achieved something.