Tuesday, May 12, 2015

We can't Remain Silent!


It takes a Village 
Abuse of Power

I had some difficulty writing this blog post and like most of my posts the topic is often a subject that has preoccupied me for some time. In this post I blog about the behaviour of some elected leaders towards band members, our reaction to it, and the broader context of First Nation governance. You might recognise your own community in what I write, but I am writing about my community.

Fort Chipewyan, Alberta
You may or may not know Fort Chipewyan, Alberta. The community I come from is a combination of Metis, Cree, Densuline, and non- native people. It is one of the oldest settlements in Alberta. It is not a reserve (lands set aside for First Nations) but there are parcels of reserve lands owned by the Mikisew Cree First Nation within the hamlet. My First Nation, Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, has reserve lands but no one lives on the reserve.  This is what makes our community unique from most other.
For the most part, our lives are interlaced into a tapestry that connects us through our kinships. I see it as a delicate dance to maintain balance between personal, politics and work.  If you work in the band office or one of the band owned companies your boss is likely the Chief and Council. In fact, there are few businesses in Fort Chipewyan that are not owned by one of the First Nations. This can create an interesting community profile and at the same time an opportunity for abuse of power because most employment in both is at the whim of a few people. This opportunity does not always lead to an actual abuse of power, but it does happen.

Hence, the best-kept secret in many First Nation communities is the concentration of power and, in some, the unabated abuse of power. In a small and tightly knit community, where everyone knows your name (LOL), there are simply no secrets.  But ironically as far as anyone is concerned our lips are sealed.

For over two years I feel as if I have been a lone voice for the members advocating and encouraging members to ask the difficult (but necessary) questions of our leaders.

I started out with the objective of assisting the Chief and Council by adding to their communications capacity on behalf of my extended family and to pay back for what my family has received as educational and other assistance over the years.  I identified a key shortcoming, the lack of good information about the First Nation’s governance and economic ventures.  I thought that my efforts would be welcomed, especially by a Chief who had campaigned on a platform of openness and greater transparency. But I was wrong.

Nuhëyatié “our voice”
My independent newsletter, blog and my postings on other social media platforms provide an outlet for members. Many members are contacting me directly to share issues and concerns and I sense their dissatisfaction with the status quo. But in spite of the raised awareness and pressure for more information there has been unequivocally no evidence of any progress towards transparency and accountability.  We are just as much in the dark as we ever were.

We have governance that is cloaked in secrecy and hidden agendas, which masquerades as looking out for our best interest. It is becoming clear that the only interest being looked after is the interest of a very few people.  Even worse, our First Nation is currently involved in court proceedings due to their refusal to follow the First Nations Financial Transparency Act, asserting that it is a right not to be transparent or accountable. How much will this cost our band?

Fort Chipewyan, Alberta
Furthermore, there are rumoured stories circulating in the community of possible misconduct that sadly appear not to be isolated. Here I must be vague because like I said these are rumours and no one has yet come forward to report these incidents to the RCMP. But people believe that where there is smoke, you will find fire, especially where a community operates in rumours and secrets and there is no open communication. What surprises me is there is no public outrage from the community at large for an investigation into these rumours. To be sure there are quiet rumblings and indignation but business continues as “normal”.

Is it that our expectations of our leaders and ourselves is so low that we assume that this is a normal way of living? Why do we carry on as “business as usual” while remaining silent when we learn of improprieties?

Moreover, in a culture of fear, intimidation and silence, even if you believe it, you are emotionally paralyzed to do anything about it. This is particularly true if the victim is in some way dependent on the person in power. Herein lies the problem because work, personal relations and politics are knitted together and there is no avoiding it, short of moving. And not everyone can leave the community. The only real solution is to eradicate it by holding people accountable for their actions.

We should never underestimate the destructive nature of abuse of power. When someone exploits his or her position of power it is a criminal act. The onus must be placed on the person in power to ensure that no abuse has occurred, and that no laws have been breached.

For the rest of us, if we remain silent and pretend that nothing happened, our complacency is condoning the action and this makes us a party to a conspiracy to protect the abuser and to deny support to the victim. The cycle of abuse of power will continue.  Abusers or would-be abusers will seek power, not those who would seek to serve the community interest.  A toxic culture of abuse of power permeates everything and will often draw others into the cycle. Without people willing to turn a blind eye or to support this culture of abuse it would lose its power. It is time we break the cycle of mistreatment and abuse of power. It has to start in our communities.

However, the problem is systemic and is deeply rooted and requires extreme measures to eliminate. It’s like putting on a clean pair of socks before washing your feet. The stink is still there and before you know it your clean socks are smelly too. You can change the leaders, but if we don’t change our expectation as members and demand accountability, this will likely continue with the next set of leaders.

In order to be rid of this culture of abuse we have to start from the beginning and overhaul how we administer our band governance. The paternalist policies drafted by agents of Indian and Northern Affairs in the early sixties are outdated and must be expunged. We have to take control and responsibility of our governance. The key to good governance is to have a strong Election Code, Executive and Administrative Acts, including a Code of Ethics.  All members should be aware and approve these instruments. There must be without exception clear lines of reporting back to the community with tough guidelines and consequences in place for any breaches.

More importantly, we must change our mindset and not look the other way when we learn that one of our elected break our laws. We owe it to ourselves, our children, our grandchildren, to not allow the elected to act with impunity. If you have been a victim of a crime or possible crime you must report it to the RCMP and have them investigate it. At some point we must draw upon what we know to be the right thing to do, and do it with determination, integrity and honor.  We are not alone, together our voice can be stronger. 

This is our legacy.

Perhaps our time has come to Stand up against fear.

I’d like to think so.


DUTA said...

I guess you're referring to something local and specific of which I know nothing about.

However, I do know that corruption and power abuse prevail everywhere in the world ,inclusive in my own country.

It wasn't always like that. Perhaps there's too much permisseveness, and a fake kind of liberalism, nowadays. Could be that's what brings about the bad things mentioned in your post's title.

steve julian said...

Change is a difficult task. The people who benefit don't want to change, the people who don't are afraid of the unknown. I agree that information is key. We have become a group of people that expect C & C to befixers and not Leaders. We want to mangage our poverty. We don't want them to think about the larger and longer issues. We only deal with the now. That is the problem. We have adopted a government system that is not accountable to the people. Afterall it was the Indian Agent that controlled everything regardless of what Chief sat in the chair. And that system has flourished. Trasparency is an empty word. What you need is someone willing to say, "NO" to the constant 'wants' of the members. Let managers manage and C & C lead. We need to see them as leaders and not fixers of my doors and windows.

Angelina Pratt said...

I could not agree with you more! :)

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