Sudbury

Anishinabek governance vote: a step towards self-determination or return of the 'Indian agent?'

Anishinaabe people voting on whether to opt out of certain sections of the Indian Act and have a different relationship with the federal government. The Anishinabek Nation is calling it a step towards self-governance, but others aren't so sure. 

Agreement would give First Nations more authority over local elections, citizenship

Anishinabek Grand Council Chief Glen Hare and Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations Carolyn Bennett sign the agreement that 15 First Nations are now voting on. (Carolyn Bennett/Twitter)

Jason Abel says he isn't normally political, but he has spent hours going door-to-door in his community of Atikameksheng handing out flyers to his neighbours.

"They were actually really glad somebody was coming around and giving them the other side of the story," says the 46-year-old from the small First Nation near Sudbury.

"And basically nobody knew what it was."

Abel doesn't want his community to sign onto a new governance agreement, which would see them opt out of some sections of the Indian Act and turn the Anishinabek Nation from a lobby organization into a kind of regional government. 

"I do think it is a step toward self-government, but not in the right direction," says Abel. 

"The only thing we need is our own agreement with the government. We don't need this middle man."

The vote this month by 15 First Nations is to sign on to an agreement the Anishinabek Nation reached with the federal government.

Thousands of Anishinaabe people in 15 First Nations are voting this week on a new governance agreement with the federal government. (Facebook )

Grand Chief Glen Hare says it would give individual First Nations more power over their local elections and citizenship rules — and give them more federal funding.

"Those are lovely, beautiful things I wish I had when I was a leader in my community. I would have done so much more knowing I had this kind of authority behind me," says Hare. 

"Why do we always have to phone or contact Ottawa to get approval for a number of things? I've been hearing that for years." 

Hare believes that this model will make it easier for local First Nations leaders to make decisions and solve chronic problems like the housing shortage faster.

Nelson Toulouse is the chief of Sagamok First Nation. (www.sagamok.ca)

The Sagamok First Nation on the north shore of Lake Huron recently pulled out of the Anishinabek Nation.

Chief Nelson Toulouse says there had been problems with the organization for years, but the governance vote was the "last straw."

"We had issues with the their definition of themselves calling themselves a nation. We don't believe they're a nation. They're a corporate organization made up of member communities and they operate under the laws of Canada," he says. 

"You can't talk about self-governance and sovereignty under under somebody else's rules."

Toulouse compared the Anishinabek Nation's role in the new governance agreement to the "Indian agents" who used to enforce federal government policies in Indigenous communities in decades past.

Hayden King is the executive director of the Yellowhead Institute at Ryerson University. (Clifton Li Photography)

Hayden King from the Yellowhead Institute says he would like to see Anishinabek communities make a bolder move toward self determination. 

"What they're signing up for kind of entrenches what we already have, which is a status quo governance model that most people would argue is pretty broken," he says.

"This isn't a revolutionary agreement. I think it's pretty incremental. It starts with expanding jurisdiction over areas that we are already sort of have jurisdiction over." 

Voting in the 15 First Nations — including Whitefish River, Wahnapitae, Nipissing, Michipicoten, Sheguiandah, Sheshegawaning and Magnetawan — continues online and at polling stations until Feb. 29.

To be binding, 25 per cent plus one of the membership each First Nation has to cast a ballot in support. 

Another eight communities, including Dokis and Serpent River in the Northeast, are set to vote in May. 

About the Author

Erik White

journalist

Erik White is a CBC journalist based in Sudbury. He covers a wide range of stories about northern Ontario. Connect with him on Twitter @erikjwhite. Send story ideas to erik.white@cbc.ca