Located in the North Coast region of the Canadian province of British Columbia, the traditional territory of the Haisla Nation has found itself at the center of Canada’s energy and international commerce debate.
Ellis Ross was elected Chief Councilor of the Haisla Nation in 2011 and re-elected by acclamation to a four-year term in 2013. A full-time Councilor since 2003, Ross has navigated the complexities and inherent tensions of balancing tradition, the environment and his vision of economic self-determination for the Haisla Nation for more than a decade.
In a conversation with National Geographic’s David Braun and Michelle Hindmarch, he talks about the importance of knowledge and understanding when framing the issues in an energy debate, and reflects on the lessons, pressures and rewards of a job unlike any other.
David Braun: What is the status of the debate in Canada about the development of a big energy export industry for the country, particularly as it impacts First Nations?
Chief Councilor Ellis Ross: Maybe it’s a realization that I came to a couple years ago, but I really thought that the aboriginals were behind the game in terms of understanding the energy question. But in the last couple of years I’ve realized it’s a general problem in Canada, let alone British Columbia, that a lot of residents don’t understand energy at all. I think that we are slowly getting out of that ignorance level that we have about energy across the board, and it’s these energy questions about exports into Asia that’s sparking this debate.
That’s my opinion because I have a lot of non-aboriginals questioning me about energy and it was always my opinion that non-natives had this game all locked up; they had all the knowledge and all the information and I had to catch up, but actually now I think it is almost the reverse.
David Braun: As First Nations are becoming more aware of the issues, where are they fitting into the debate?
Chief Councilor Ellis Ross: Well there are many different levels they are trying to fit in; for us we are trying to fit into the policy level and the legislative level, as well as trying to use the energy question to address some of our own issues because every other process that has been put in place to address our own issues has failed. So aboriginals, I think, probably are just starting to understand where they fit and how they might fit, but I think most of them are actually just where we were about eight years ago understanding what is this all about and how to get to the table.
David Braun: On your Facebook page, you say that there are many proposals aboriginal nations have to consider. You say: “When we look at these proposals we have to find accurate information in terms of impacts, benefits, and feasibility. Subtopics can be right of ways, fracking, logging practices, financing, permitting, corporate structures, emissions, land ownership, the list goes on and on. We do have to consider the future, but we also have to consider the present and the situation that we know our membership is in and try to put them in a position where they can help themselves.” That’s a lot of topics that you are dealing with, a lot of balls in the air. Is this what you mean when you and other aboriginal leaders say that energy resources and the new energy export industry for Canada is the best opportunity for First Nations to get out of the “culture of dependency”? Can you elaborate a little bit on this kind of thinking?
Chief Councilor Ellis Ross: Well I have been doing this work for ten years now and when you start this kind of work for an aboriginal council you aren’t given much information in terms of what the status quo is or how to get out of the status quo. So as I learned about the Indian Act and aboriginal rights and title and all the different processes around us that we attempted to understand, I realized in the last four years or so that there is really nothing in existence that works to gets us out of dependence.
Aboriginal rights and title speaks a lot about these different issues, but when you talk about the corporate side, commercial side and the opportunities that come around it, there is no limit with what you can do with the benefits that come out of these files. When I looked at the issues regarding the Indian Act and all the specific claims we have with Canada and treaty negotiations, all I saw was limitations. But when I looked at economic development either individually on our own, or used the projects proposed to us to springboard off of, I saw no limitations. I also saw every one of the benefits of economic development actually answering every one of our issues that we’ve battled with for probably the last 100 years or 150 years.
David Braun: So, okay, the benefits are fairly clear to you, but you also have to trade off the impacts of the energy industry. How much do you think about impacts, especially from the tradition of being stewards of the land? Some of your colleagues and some of the other aboriginal groups are very worried about that. What are the major impacts that concern you?
Chief Councilor Ellis Ross: That is central to everything that we do up here, but it is also a question of nobody really has the money or resources to address past impacts. For some of the opportunity we took in the past we said, okay, we are not out for a paycheck every single time for the benefit of our nation; some of this means we want some of that money going toward remediating the environment. In one of our agreements we have the Kitimat River rehabilitation program. The thought behind it was the company we are negotiating with would help fund rehabilitation of the Kitimat River. We are going to use that to show other companies that if you want to come into our territory, you have to contribute on top of what you are doing in terms of the environment. You have to contribute to this fund so that we can actually address some of the environment issues we have in our territory. At the same time, environmentalists, if you can’t answer the environment question with your project description there is no point in talking to us.
Michelle Hindmarch: The issue of environmental remediation is interesting and very important in these discussions.
Chief Councilor Ellis Ross: Well you see there is one really interesting project that we are doing with Canada right now. A lot of what I see in terms of environmental issues regarding economic development in Canada is the big sexy impacts, but what is just as damaging are the impacts that no one knows about or understands. It is those impacts as well as on the ground that we are trying to address as well. So first I am going to tell you about logging damage not only in our territory but probably everybody’s territory across Canada.
When a logging company comes to town they get a permit from the Crown and they start dumping logs into the water. Then they start storing those logs in the water until they get enough to put on the barge. But while you are dumping that wood into the water, bark, cables, logs, hooks, batteries are all sinking to the bottom of the ocean. In one storage area alone in our territory we knew about this type of impact but it was confirmed by a report that said there are 22,000 logs in the bottom of this bay. What this does is as the logs oxidize it takes the oxygen out of the water and that is why you don’t see the life that use to be there one hundred years ago.
If you think about this and put it in context, logging up and down the west coast of BC, every single area has this impact where logs are oxidizing and nobody will take responsibility and nobody wants to pay for the remediation, including the company that did this and which probably still exists. Canada has no money, BC’s got no money, the company in question probably left a long time ago, and even if they are still there they are not going to commit the resources to clean it up.
At the very least then we have to figure out a way to stop these logs from oxidizing in these areas. What we came up with is, because our reserve site down channel has to get rid of 3.5 million cubic meters of marine clay for an LNG terminal site, our scientist and technologists got together with Canada’s scientists and their regulators and said on a small scale it has been proven that if you cap some of these logs you slow down the oxidation process. Since there is no other proposal on the table to clean up these logs, we are pushing with Canada to dump 3.5 million cubic meters of marine clay on top of the 22,000 sunken logs to stop them from oxidizing and hopefully bring back sea life.
Environmental issues are always central to what we do. Jobs and training are great, the revenues are great, but what’s the point if you are killing of your environment.
David Braun: So what you have been saying is that something like that was not foreseen at the time, and there might well be this type of consequence for the environment for the new industries that cannot be foreseen now. How do you propose would be the best way to provide for remediation of environmental impact? Is it like a central fund perhaps to address any possible damage?
Chief Councilor Ellis Ross: It depends on what the impact is. What we are seeing is that the Crown is doing not a bad job on addressing impacts. A lot better than what they were doing ten years ago where they were actually allowing every type of impact to exceed the permit requirements. Now they are holding companies to their permit excesses and saying nope, you are not going to do it.
We’re okay with the Crown’s legislative requirements and their policies are great, but that’s only the minimum. Anything that the Crown can’t address because they have no legislative authority to address an impact, then that’s where Haisla will take over with our environmental stewardship principles under rights and title. This is an unofficial understanding between the Crown and the proponents, where the Crown will say we don’t have the legislation to cover this type of impact but you know you are not going to get project off the ground unless you go talk to Haisla anyway.
What we propose in our territory for projects is a meet or beat standard. To meet a standard is okay, you’ve done the minimum requirement for the Crown’s legal or policy requirements, but you have to go above and beyond that to satisfy the Haisla environmental stewardship principles. And that’s documented for us.
So it’s not just the revenues that we take to put together a fund to rebuild the Kitimat River. Our staff here has been directed for years now to make sure projects are held to a higher standard, regardless of what the legislation requires for the Crown.
David Braun: And do you feel that you’ve been making progress in that regard? Or is this a demand?
Chief Councilor Ellis Ross: Oh yeah, it happens almost on a weekly basis.
David Braun: So industry is playing along with this?
Chief Councilor Ellis Ross: They really have no choice. To get their environmental certificate is one thing, but then they have to have our support. After you get the environmental certificate you have to get buy-in for every single permit that comes under that environmental certificate, and for that we have a protocol agreement signed with the province of BC that says we work together on these permits and the impacts that come out of it. So the proponent really has no choice but to come to the table and say, okay we will do the minimum for what the province is saying but also we have to consider what the Haisla are saying.
David Braun: Would you say then that you have sufficient safeguards or standards in place with regard to the early stages of discussion, consultation, and planning?
Chief Councilor Ellis Ross: Yes, yes, we do.
David Braun: Then you are happy with the situation as it is now?
Chief Councilor Ellis Ross: Yeah, it’s not perfect but at least our interests are now getting heard and worked into the proposals and some of the processes around these projects getting developed. Whereas ten years ago, absolutely not, we weren’t heard, nobody cared about us, it didn’t matter how many letters we wrote or how many meetings we had. Nobody really cared about what we had to say.
David Braun: Looking at the bigger picture, if you feel that you’ve made progress and that you can collaborate on these projects, the bigger picture would be how your neighbors feel about these issues. How do you see the development of the process at all levels of government, industry, civil society, and First Nations collectively? What would you say are the biggest challenges to actually making this happen in a sustainable way in which all the stakeholders feel that they’ve got a fair deal?
Chief Councilor Ellis Ross: Well first of all, I am totally committed to the Haisla agenda, and secondary to that I do try to reach out to other First Nations who have the same issues. But the problem I see with First Nations is the inability to work together.
I read the statements made by the First Nations, I see what their dreams are, what their issues are. They want to be included at all levels, whether it be the decision-making, revenues, jobs and employment. But a number of times I’ve tried to work with other First Nations I find it’s hard to get them to collaborate on certain issues, let alone projects. In fact, given rights and title case law and given the opportunity, what I’m telling my people is that we never had this type of opportunity before. In fact, when I take a look at this politically from my chair, I don’t see this as the age-old rhetoric of the white man holding us back or keeping us down. That is an old thought that was established when it was a reality 50 years ago. That is not the reality now, if anything the only people that are holding us back as Haisla are ourselves.
It’s a question of, you wanted independence but you can’t get it under the Indian act and you don’t want it under treaty. What other options are there? If economic development isn’t your pathway to independence, what is? How do we stop fighting amongst ourselves and how do we solve the question of who leads us? And Haisla, if what you really want is independence, jobs, contracts, training, revenues and you have the opportunity to do it, why are we still internally fighting?
I see this problem not only with our First Nation but with a lot of First Nations across BC and Canada. It is quite clear to me that opportunity gets squandered. Not because the white men have taken away the opportunity, it’s because First Nations themselves can’t agree on the opportunity, and then the sub bullets underneath that.
David Braun: You ask the question why that is, do you have any answers to that question?
Chief Councilor Ellis Ross: Yeah, yeah, I do. It’s capacity; it’s a level of ignorance. In fact, before I got on council, I was probably the most ignorant guy around by choice. I listened to the speeches over the years before I got into council and I was one of those ones to clap at the empty speeches promising independence and a better future, not knowing that the pathway is not very clear. I’ve heard the speeches where leaders have said that it’s high time that the Crown listen to us and change mandates, and I would clap wildly. Now that I get into council, I think no; we have to speak definite proposals. It has to be clear. There’s a difference between a speech based on rhetoric and one that is based on objectives and goals.
When I talk about the level of information and ignorance out there I hold myself in that same light, until I got the information myself and started to learn from the inside out. Before you can make a change, you have to know what the status is, you have to know what the opportunity is, and you have to understand that there is more than just you at the table trying to talk about this. There is the opposite side talking as well.
David Braun: If society as a whole can’t come together, is there a danger that the opportunity will be lost to break the culture of dependency?
Chief Councilor Ellis Ross: Yeah, there is. We have tried the forestry industry under what we call the forest and range agreement with the province, where we collected revenues but we also get a certain amount of timber available to us to harvest. That is one tough slog to make a living off of. It kind of contradicts some of the stuff our people have been talking about in terms of impacts and the logging industry.
Where we used to complain, oh this is not right they are cutting these tracts of land, and the remediation after the fact that you’ve logged it is not good enough , and plus sending it out as a raw export to Asia just to make a buck, that’s wrong. Then when we as Haisla got into the forestry industry under this legislation that BC put together, what did we do? We clear cut and send raw resources to Asia to make a buck. I see these double standards all the time.
It’s hard to balance culture versus your goals of independence. I don’t think our future is in forestry. I am really impressed with those First Nations that make a base line living out of the forestry industry because that is really a tough business to get into and make a buck. So the danger of this happening to us is what got us into the natural gas industry. I really don’t see any other industry that can actually open the door to independence. I really don’t. Everything we look at is talking about exporting resources from Canada to the places in the world that actually need it the most, want it the most, and today that is Asia.
David Braun: You have been very frank about your own constituency and about First Nations in general. What can industry and government at all levels do better?
Chief Councilor Ellis Ross: You know what? I am pretty satisfied at this point with the provincial Crown’s approach to Haisla’s issues. I don’t know if they are taking the same approach and applying it to other First Nations. The industries that come to our territory are now aware of rights and title and how the Haisla exercises them. So they come willingly to our table both at the leadership level as well as the bureaucratic level and they work with our bureaucrats, so that’s working fine. So when I read these articles in the paper about First Nations still complaining about the Crown, I’ve actually said this at a number of conferences, I don’t know what you guys are going through and I don’t know what your issues are, but Haisla do not have those issues anymore. In fact, if anything, I think what we have in Haisla is a working model of how to reconcile rights and title with the Crown.
David Braun: Do you think you have a good understanding with environmental action groups that don’t want development, or which are opposed to pipelines because of the environmental impact of potential oil spills or shipping disasters? Is that a concern for you?
Chief Councilor Ellis Ross: Yeah, it is a concern, only in terms of the information that is being developed by these types of groups. It is not just environmental groups that I question, its political groups, the government, First Nations. The thing about information is it all depends on who is actually putting out the information and the slant they put on it. This is why I really don’t trust different groups.
It is better if I actually take a cross-section of all the different things these groups are saying and try and make an opinion for our people.
We have had some experience with environmental groups in our area; with environmental groups, we saved the Kitlope from logging about twenty/thirty years ago. That’s when I really started to understand the mandates and what these different groups are trying to achieve. But I am trying to achieve something too and I’ve got a mandate and it does not necessarily match up with governmental mandates and it doesn’t necessarily match up with the environmental group mandates. There is a middle ground in all of these discussions, of course, but you can’t just blindly go and side up with one group and basically take on their mandate as you are trying to establish your own or achieve your own.
But I do read what these groups are putting out there. And I have to question it and keep in mind that this is a group that is trying to achieve a specific goal. I might not know what the goal is, and that goal might not be what I am trying to achieve as well.
David Braun: It sounds like you have a very clear mind as to where you would like to go. What would you say is your most immediate challenge or obstruction?
Chief Councilor Ellis Ross: Obstructions, well there are a lot of them of course. I guess the biggest obstruction right now is the number of aboriginal groups in BC that are just starting to understand the impacts of resource exports and trying to understand clearly the case law that actually gets these companies and government to the table. It takes time to understand, so you have to understand the impacts first, and then you have to understand rights and title to get these guys to the table. If you don’t understand this, it all becomes the political landscape that leads nowhere while you trying to understand what is going on. The Chief Williams case, I’m not sure if you guys are aware of this but, Tsilhqot’in case just got recently decided at the Canadian Supreme Court.
David Braun: Explain what that is, please.
Chief Councilor Ellis Ross: The Chief Williams case is called the Tsilhqot’in case. They have been fighting forestry activity in their territory since 1983, and as each case law came out that was established in provincial and federal courts, they actually changed the arguments they brought to the courts to talk about proving their aboriginal title to the actual territory in question.
I’ve have been following this court case for the last 6 years, but they have been in court a lot longer now. I was on holiday when the Canadian Supreme Court decision came down. It was quite significant; the court said the Tsilhqot’in people, the Chief Williams case, actually proved title. They proved title to the ground. This is the first time that anybody has actually proved title. I was on holiday and I swore I would not pick up an email or check a message or anything. I happened to walk by a newspaper and saw “Tsilhqot’in win title”. I saw these headlines that said this is a game-changer and all this other stuff.
I stuck to my plan and did not respond to messages and I didn’t read the newspaper article. But when I got back in the office, I said, oh my god, the amount of emails and newspapers articles; Everybody talking about the potential now, and how aboriginals are going to own the land and all that. Well I have a good understanding of case law when it pertains to aboriginal rights and title. Every relevant case I’ve read, and I’ve also read the summaries trying to understand what that case law said. So I was very skeptical on what the media was saying about the Tsilhqot’in case, what the aboriginals were doing, I was very skeptical. I Facebooked it and said, look guys, I seriously doubt that this is what it is. But when I get back into the office I will look at the case law, talk to my lawyers, and I’ll try to put together a summary in terms of what this means for Haisla.
When I got back, I got the case law, I read it, and then I put together a description of what I thought it meant. I sent it to my lawyer, and my lawyer turned back and said, yeah, absolutely right, that’s what it means. So what it really meant was, yeah, these guys proved title but now they got to sit down and talk to the Crown about how to reconcile the title. And actually the court case itself reaffirmed a lot of the other previous court cases.
You know it was a good win, but guys, this doesn’t really mean anything for us. It doesn’t mean the world is going to get turned upside down for us, it means our ability to actually leverage this in terms of consultation and accommodation, gets elevated. But it all depends on what your council brings to the table to actually raise that level. So it’s pretty complicated to understand it, but I am trying to encourage our people to stick to the path that we established ten years ago, we are getting there. If one natural gas project gets approved, I can tell you, you have the ability and the choice to say, yes, we want independence, on our own terms.
Michelle Hindmarch: Chief Councilor, what do you think is the best way to reach people and engage them around energy issues? In your experience, where are the opportunities and challenges in raising energy awareness and education?
Chief Councilor Ellis Ross: Well I am recommending people that are associated with the energy industry and the Crown use social media to start getting the information out there in terms of energy and the energy question. I was telling people, aboriginal people who want to listen and my own people, look, don’t just depend on me. There is a resource out there called the Internet, it’s got a tremendous amount of information. And some of it, yeah, it’s questionable, but some of its actually pretty good information, verified information. So anything I say, you guys should take with a grain of salt and go research it yourself. There is Wikipedia, there all sorts of different resources.
More importantly for me, it’s not firstly the energy question that I am trying to get established with my people. I am trying to get my people to understand aboriginal rights and title case law. It is the seed of everything that we are doing in Haisla territory. Everything we are doing is based on aboriginal case law. That is the key for us getting independence. If you don’t understand it you are not actually going to achieve what you really want to achieve.
There is a book out there called Resource Rulers. the author’s name is Bill Gallagher. This guy pulled me aside at a restaurant like six months ago, he just pulled me out of a busy restaurant. I was at the front paying my bill, and this guy came out of the crowd and introduced himself. He said, I know you, I know who you are and I want to show you something. He pulled out this book and said, you know, this is you. This is all about you. What you are doing is absolutely 100 percent correct. The First Nations in BC/Canada as well as the aboriginal community know that this is the way to go about it. He actually signed a copy of it and gave it to me. I am not in the book by the way.
In terms of the natural gas industry, he said, you guys are right on the line, you’ve got it right, you are going to achieve everything you want. You are right about your opposition to the Enbridge pipeline. You’re right, you are going to win. So since then I read the book, and then when I started to go to my membership meetings and talk to my members, we started handing out copies of the book.
I am probably one of the only people in my current organization that has a tremendous amount of hunger for information regarding rights and title. I have probably read just about every relevant court case that addresses rights and title and yes, it’s hard to understand. So what I have been trying to tell my people is if you don’t understand the basic mechanisms and tools at your disposal to achieve what you want, you are not going to get it. You can’t keep depending on me because I am going to get hit by a bus one day, or I am going to quit, or not going to get elected in. But the pathway that we have established in the last ten years, we have to continue that, we can’t let it go to waste. When I got this book, I read it and said for the first time there is a book out there that puts into context what’s possible by using rights and title case law. We should not be trying to reinvent the wheel.
So I think we have bought now from that private publisher about one hundred books. We have distributed them to our band membership. I am telling our band membership you do not have to understand rights and title case law, you don’t have to do what I did and read every case law out there, But you should understand the possibilities that we have not had.
So if anybody is interested in your future or interested about what we can achieve with rights and title, here is a book, read it, share it, and understand it. I always think that this type of book should be a mandatory reading for my high school students. It is a new day and age, section 35 of the Constitution, Rights and Title case law, Chief Williams’s case.
Everything that we have used to get us to the point today is not being consumed in terms of knowledge from our people. It is absolutely crazy. What are you guys reading, what are you understanding? We have to get rid of that old age way of doing business. Get rid of the rhetoric; get rid of the political speeches demanding that Canada come to our table. Let’s start thinking about reconciliation, and new opportunities to get these parties to the table and talk about our issues and actually agree upon them. What we have been doing for the past ten years.
Michelle Hindmarch: That’s pretty amazing.
Chief Councilor Ellis Ross: Yeah the book was amazing. You know when I go to conferences as well, depending on who the audience is, I used to tell people, look if you don’t have a rights and title lawyer, get one, it saved us a lot of time. I don’t say that anymore. What I do is I hold up this book, I say look, 200 hundred court cases won by aboriginals. The court is your court, not mine. If you want your project to proceed, at the very least you should understand the history of Canada and the aboriginals. You should understand it so read the book.
Michelle Hindmarch: Empowering people with the knowledge.
David Braun: Chief Councilor, do you have anything to add to our overall discussion?
Chief Councilor Ellis Ross: The only thing, it is hard to put this in an exact form. I try to summarize everything I am doing up here to anybody who wants to hear it, including my people. I have got to acknowledge what happened to us as a people in the last 100, 200 years. I have to acknowledge that I am not going to be able to fix it and we do have to understand where we came from in terms of our issues and our problems. I also have to build something for the future, I know that as well as protect the land, I have to at least try put us on a path towards independence.
I also have to figure out something in terms of getting our current membership out of this hole that we have been dug into. I have to find a way to address the 60% unemployment in our community. I have got to find a way for our people to stop killing themselves, whether it is by suicide or by alcohol and drugs. Every time I go to funeral where a young person has taken their own life or died by alcohol or drug abuse, I think, jeez, this is why I do what I do. I have got to build something for my people; I got to tell them there is something better out there than what was given to you in the last 100 years.
All this talk about strong independent nations and proud, yeah, that’s all fun and great, but you can’t have a strong independent, proud nation unless your members are strong, independent and proud. And how do you do that if your members are on welfare? I just don’t see how that actually fits.
By the way, this job is exhausting. I tell our people, this job kills people, people get sick, they get harassed, they get taken to court. Being chief councilor leader of an aboriginal community is probably one of the unhealthiest jobs you can take on, Because you are getting it from all levels, you are getting it from your own people, you are getting it from the Crown, and you are getting it from proponents. There is no real definition in terms of what your job is and how to go about it, so I get burned out a lot, I get discouraged. it takes me a couple days, and then I reach out to find renewed energy and come back.
About a year ago I got a knock on at the door at my home. And I went out and looked, there was, this tiny little girl. She had an envelope full of papers. She looked up at me and said, would you like to buy a painting? Buy a painting? What do you mean? So she pulled out these drawings that she made with a marker. It’s a picture of what I think are two gingerbread people with smiley faces. So I looked at it and said, oh, okay sure, how much do you want for it? She said $2; she had about ten of these in these envelopes. So I got $2 and gave it to her. I went back in to see if I could find more money, but by that time she was gone. So I think I got ripped off because she didn’t sign it.
Michelle Hindmarch: Ah, you don’t have the artist name?
Chief Councilor Ellis Ross: I don’t have the artist name, and I didn’t know who she was really. I questioned around who it was, I found out who it was. I found out that this is what she does. She couldn’t have been any more then 5 or 6 years old. So I came to the office, I taped it up in front of me. I looked at it every day. I put a note below it in terms of my job, “if you didn’t get paid for it, would you still do it?” So this is the amount of energy and desire I have to get my people on a better path.
Michelle Hindmarch: Chief Councilor Ross how long have you been at the position?
Chief Councilor Ellis Ross: I have been working on council since 2003, I got elected to Chief Councilor in 2011, and then in 2013 I was put in by acclamation. I have to say that nobody feared me; it was because nobody was dumb as me to run for this.
Chief Councilor Ellis Ross: By the way, we have done a number of things here to slowly move us away from the Indian Act. What I told our people is that the Indian Act is not a bad thing if you really look at it at a certain level. Yeah, it limits you. Yeah, it actually gives the Canadian government the duty to be your dad. But really when you look at it in terms of what we are doing, the Indian Act only has the funding that we receive from Ottawa on an annual basis. That is the only hold or control they have over us. You can choose to abide by it or ignore it.
We have done three different things, two official with Canada that move us away from the Indian Act. We have our own election code now, so we don’t abide by the Indian Act election code. Just recently, our membership actually approved us taking authority away from Canada to manage our own reserve lands. We are going to talk about an effective date next. But now there are two components of the Indian Act that we do not abide by.
Internally, politically I couldn’t understand why we have portfolios that deal with departments that have no flexibility to change. When you get funding from Canada, you get funding for health, welfare, community development–those types of programs that we have to deliver to our people. But the funding agreements are so restrictive that you really can’t change them. It takes a tremendous amount of energy, and effort, and money to change these funding agreements. Why do we have political people sitting at portfolios when we can’t change the funding agreements?
What I got finally and I have been trying to push for this for the last four years, putting all the governmental programs under one portfolio. An executive committee will oversee the administration. And what we will do at the same time is develop new portfolios to look at the issues that have nothing to do with the Indian Act. Now we have a language portfolio, government to government portfolio, economic development portfolio, we’ve got an own-source-revenue portfolio. It’s just absolutely amazing when 10 years ago all we would talk about was how to get more health money from Canada; whereas, with this new economic development initiative that we have, I haven’t talked about Indian act programming in probably the last five years.
I don’t think the administration needs us in terms of running that program; they don’t need us at all as politicals. I am trying to change the mindset of our people, and our administration, and our council. Stop thinking about the Indian Act as being the end all of all the things Indian. It is very minor when you look at it in terms of what we are looking at. In fact, right now we always look at the chart in terms of where our revenues come from. I think we should match it up in terms of the activities and where we expend the energy.
Overall, the Indian Act programming makes up 17% of the revenues coming in now to our office. Everything else has been apart from governmental funding. I am trying to tell the people you guys should stop focusing on Indian Act programming or money, that’s not where the future is. You should be focusing on everything outside of the Indian Act. I am not saying walk away from it, I am saying prioritize where we put our energy and our efforts. It is a tough goal but it’s paying off.
The other reason why we put this new structure together is we shouldn’t be relying on me fully because I am not going to live forever. The new structure in part is supposed to be teaching 11 councilors how to be a chief councilor. So we give them autonomy, responsibility, we include accountability and transparency. I want each one of these councilors to think if you were the chief councilor, what decision would you make in terms of the portfolio you are leading and do it. Do it! There are no rules around this, as long as you do it for the benefit of the people and you’re open, transparent and accountable. I am no expert and if I am not here then one of you should be able to step up and take my position. There are a lot of different things we are doing here to prepare for independence without treaty negotiations and without walking away from the Indian Act.