Monday, September 21, 2015

What Makes a Good Chief?

Elijah Harper 1949-2013
Was a Leader of his People!
My First Nation, Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation (ACFN) is embarking on a general election on October 30th, 2015, and, like the Federal election, real change is not only desirable but also necessary. Are there any members out there who aspire to be a great leaders?  Remember to be humble, have fun and don't be afraid to ask for help. This will be the most challenging position you will ever have and the most rewarding if done properly.

It reminds me of when I lived in Alberta and one of the Vice Presidents of the Indian Association of Alberta asked me what I thought made a good Chief.  His question caught me off guard and at the time I felt ill prepared to give him a satisfactory answer.  But his question has stayed with me over the years.

Background 

I was the Executive Director for Treaty and Aboriginal Rights Research (TARR) in Alberta, in the late 1980s and early 1990s.  I worked with all the Chiefs of all of Alberta – namely the Chiefs of the First Nations of Treaty 6, 7, and 8.  At the time there were 45 Chiefs in Alberta.  I led a team that worked diligently to research and document specific claims (mostly Treaty breaches) that were ready to be submitted as Statement of Claims to the government of Canada. When the Federal government validated a claim, we continued to provide support to the First Nation’s negotiation team to ensure that a fair settlement was reached.

After working at TARR, in 1992 I accepted a Executive Director position with the newly created Indian Claims Commission in Ottawa. The Commission was established by the Privy Council under the Inquiries Act to address the bottleneck of specific land claims across Canada.  For the first time, an independent body existed to which First Nations could seek redress when Canada had rejected a claim.Again, I was working directly with Chiefs from across all of Canada. 

However, one day by chance I met the National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, Ovide Mercredi, on a flight to Ottawa.  By the time we landed, he had offered me a position as his Executive Assistant and I had accepted it. Working at the AFN national office I was privileged to work at the highest level with Chiefs from across Canada, on a variety of issues that concerned them.
 
As a result of these extraordinary positions I was able to experience working with a variety of Chiefs from Alberta and across the country. I have observed many different styles of being a Chief.  

I feel that the question is still a very complicated one and conceivably in today’s environment an even more difficult one to answer than in the past. 

 What do I mean?

I will speak of my own First Nation, Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation (ACFN). ACFN owns a business, ACDEN, which serves the oil industry.  I’ve been told it does more than $280 million in contracts annually and employs a staff of almost 3,000 people. In 2014 ACDEN moved into a state of the art modern building on five acres of prime land in Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada.   This is the only building in northern Alberta that is Gold LEED Certified.

 In a video on the ACDEN website, a person says,  “This building symbolizes growth, quality, and  dedication.”
 
 Good for us, right?  Well, not so fast.

 In spite of this perceived achievement we still have  overwhelming unemployment, poverty and lack of  housing in our community, not to mention all the  problems that are associated with poverty, like  drugs and alcohol, mouldy houses, poor health, and high suicide  rates.  The question I have been asking for the past  few years is why there is such a huge disconnect  between the apparent success of our business and  the abject poverty of our members?  Shouldn’t the success of the ACDEN also mean the success of its owners, who are the members of the First Nation?

Which brings me back to the question of what makes a good Chief. Well, Lawrence, I finally have an answer I feel comfortable sharing after years of working with Chiefs.  Understandably, there is not one clear answer.  My observation is that the Chiefs who are successful are the ones with a clear vision and a strong mandate from their members.

Chief Louie (click here)
He is a great chief!
Notwithstanding all the other qualifications and skills you require to fill the position of Chief.  A “good Chief” is a person whose priority is the well-being of the First Nation’s members. It is not enough to have a successful company when the members derive no noticeable benefit.

A “good Chief” takes direction from the members, but is also not afraid to provided leadership.  A “good Chief” continually evaluates decisions made by Council with how those decisions impact the members. A “good Chief” is not afraid to admit when he or she has made a mistake.  A “good Chief” might make mistakes, but will learns from them and move forward.  A “good Chief” makes decision not based on emotions but well thought-out and in the best interest of the collective membership. At the end of the day, the members will benefit from his / her leadership. 

First Nations have collective rights, but they also have collective responsibilities. Traditionally, the entire membership made decisions together as a group.  

Thus, a “good Chief” is an integral part of the First Nation and not separate from them.  A “good Chief” is on the same page as the members and derives the strength necessary to do a good job from the support of the members for their collective vision of the First Nation’s future.

Which begs the question, what would it take to make a “Great Chief” because a “good Chief” will recognize that just being 'good' does not cut it? A “good Chief” will always strive to be a GREAT chief. A great Chief will not only lead his or her community into a  brighter future but will also empower its members.  A great Chief will know the community, its history and its rights.  A great Chief will strive to improve the prosperity and wellbeing of everyone in the First Nation and not just a corporate entity. 



1 comment:

DUTA said...

I must admit the notion "first nation" is somewhat new to me, which shamefully shows how little I know about Canada.
Anyway, I'm very impressed by your background as a fighter for your people's rights and the extraordinary positions held by you which helped you achieve and experience things.
I find your opinion on what a good chief is, very interesting.

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