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What is the place of Aboriginal leaders in today’s Canada?

In the community of Kahnawake, on the outskirts of Montreal, Sky-Deer is the big boss. First woman to be elected to this title and first LGBT person to officiate here, the Mohawk forties, with keen eyes and short hair, weighs each word, refines each end of sentence.

She is aware of the weight she has gained. Ancient quarterback of the Daytona Beach Barracudas soccer club, she considers herself highly competitive for the role, which she took on last year. “For me, being a great leader means being the voice of my community. I publicly raise issues that affect us, I defend our rights, I maintain relations with the various governments. » Each week, she is responsible for the agenda of the meetings of the chiefs elected to the Kahnawake Band Council: “We most often try not to vote, but to find a consensus for decisions. Not always easy! »


Ross Montour, Kahnawake council member, gives his vision of the chief. “People who think they’re bosses shouldn’t be. We need people who stand up thinking of others. We must multiply, in the service of the community. » Thierry Rodon, director of the Interuniversity Center for Indigenous Studies and Research (CIERA) at Laval University in Quebec, confirms the Swiss army knife side of today’s chefs. “They have several roles. But they are “Ottawa creatures”, because the band councils were created by Canada and not by them. It is a mode of imposed governance. This poses a problem because they are elected by the population, but, in the texts, can be held accountable to Ottawa. » Some nations also continue to recognize another type of authority, the hereditary chief, who receives his power through his family.

The band councils, created in 1876, are responsible for health, education, employment and even justice within the community. But, financially, they still depend on Ottawa. “The Indian Act restricts their prerogatives. On paper, the government can overturn decisions made by the community.The federal government finances these band councils, which consider that it is a kind of rent paid by the colonial government, to have the right to be on their land, “ observes Thierry Rodon. Sky-Deer nods: “The government is on our territory. Even if we can have enough funds ourselves, we will never say that we don’t need Canada’s money. It is their responsibility to give it to us. »

A reaffirmed weight

Is the role of chiefs only political? “No, they are also a moral authority, they are also elected on their ability to properly convey the message of the community”, certifies Thierry Rodon. On the other hand, band council chiefs do not have a spiritual role comparable to that of Aboriginal ancestral governance, “unless the leader is also an Indigenous Elder (a guarantor of the transmission of knowledge, Editor’s note)», says Thierry Rodon. “I have no spiritual role strictly speaking, ensures Sky-Deer, because of the Indian Act, which governs my position. But I continue to exercise my spirituality and people ask me for advice. I have a degree in psychology, I like to wear many hats. »

The impact of the voice of the chiefs, the whole country understood it two years ago. In February 2020, rail traffic is almost at a standstill, and it is not because of Covid-19. The First Nations demonstrate in solidarity with the Wet’suwet’en, who denounce a gas pipeline that passes through their ancestral territory. Every hour, Aboriginal leaders appear on television, evoking progress, blockages, cornering the Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, also pressed to act by the opposition.

Canada realizes the power of nations that come together, when it counts. “On questions of territory, autonomy or the environment, we hear more of the voices of the chiefs than in the past. They are also calling for governance to be adapted to their identity, says Thierry Rodon. We have known nature for a long time, we must warn about climate change. We’re broken, but not defeated, it’s our responsibility to speak up. We’re at a crossroads, we’re developing our own economy, and the Pope comes to apologize, it’s a historic moment. »


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