State Of The First Nations
FSIN Chief Guy Lonechild says prosperity is possible
by Charles Hamilton
Ongoing uncertainty around FNUniv, controversy around provincial sales of Crown land, and housing and economic concerns both on- and off-reserve — just a few reasons why it is, as always, an interesting time to be the head of the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations (FSIN).
Interesting, and challenging.
Still, when Guy Lonechild was first elected Chief ofthe FSIN just under a year ago, many believed it was truly a sign of change and rebirth within the sometimes-troubled organization.
Prairie dog sat down with Chief Lonechild to talk about his time so far in office, the issues facing First Nations people in Saskatchewan, and, of course, the future of the First Nations University of Canada.
Some people have hailed your election as the dawn of a new era for the FSIN. What are some of the problems currently facing the FSIN, and what things do you hope to change about the organization?
We needed to look at ourselves a little closer — I mean generally, as First Nations. As an organization we were under criticism for always pointing the blame elsewhere instead of really looking at ourselves and figuring out what is it that we can do better with the resources that we have now, with the opportunities that exist in the province. And we also had to look at the challenges we’ve had with issues like First Nations University. There really needed to be a refreshing of our organization.
The controversy surrounding FNUC has been a major topic in the province — and nationwide — for some time. What do think went so wrong with the management and oversight at the university?
There wasn’t clear transparency to the Board of Governors at the time. The board was comprised not just of chiefs — the province sat there, people from the federal government sat there. There was really a need to start addressing what the management was and [that] was not being brought forward in terms of information.
Do you believe the board was simply too big?
The size of that board was definitely an issue — there were 21 people sitting on that board, so I think it needed a shakeup and [we needed] to really look at best practices of other universities around the country.
You’ve also said that politics were at the heart of the failings at FNUC. To what extent do think politics were an issue there?
Any time we see politicians that are on the board, there’s always this grey area where we don’t know if they’re making a decision based on politics or on running the operations of the school. And the [FNUC] like never before really needs to be run like a business — FNUC was going down a path where it was just going to be unsustainable.
Now that almost all funding has been reinstated — both provincially and federally — are you confident the school will be around for the long term?
The approximately $12.5 million that was pulled is now back up to $12.3 million — both from the province and the federal government. It’s our hope that we will be back to stable operational funding in the near future.
Are you happy with the way both the province and the federal government handled the issues at FNUC?
I know that action needed to be taken. Am I pleased that they’re back at the table? Yes. Am I pleased that the government funding was pulled in the first place? No, absolutely not. However, things happen for a reason and I think a clear message was sent that if we don’t change the governance structure we could lose the University for good. But I’m very happy that Ministers Norris and Strahl are back at the table.
Another big issue that FSIN has been dealing with is the provincial government’s decision to sell off large portions of Crown and treaty lands. What’s your assessment of the situation there?
In 1992, the provincial government signed a historic agreement that would restore land [to First Nations] that was lost in the establishment of the province of Saskatchewan and western Canada. These provincial or Crown lands that are in question — First Nations are owed that land, [and] we want the opportunity to purchase them and develop whatever resources are on those lands.
We know that Saskatchewan is thriving with resources, and First Nations want an opportunity to purchase some of that land and cultivate some of those resources. The fire sale of these Crown lands has created a lot of animosity between the Province and First Nations. It’s a significant issue that needs some attention.
Just to be clear, First Nations want to purchase the land?
What we cannot have is provincial Crown lands not be set aside for First Nations to have the option to buy. The danger that we have here is being put at the back of the list — that’s the significant concern.
Around the Touchwood Hills area for example, a Russian company is purchasing a whole bunch of land around the George Gordon First Nation. Chief Glen Pratt has been very concerned that the land there could have — and should have — been reserved for their purchase.
What would you like the Province to do about this issue?
I would like them to meet the affected First Nations in the various parts of the province who have some contentions with the process, and that has to happen immediately. I would err on the side of caution before issuing permits and leases to outside exploration companies, [by] talking to the various First Nations themselves first. I think that the Province has an obligation to consult First Nations. It’s in the Constitution of Canada.
In general, how would you like government relations with First Nations improved in this country?
The First Peoples both in Canada and the United States are asking for greater respect from their governments. We’ve seen [improvement] south of the border, where president Obama has said that his government is going to deal with First Nations on a nation-to-nation basis. I think that there’s a clear statement that states governments have to deal with outstanding concerns of and obligations to First Nations peoples. We need a drastically different approach that looks at strengthening First Nations’health and education. It’s going to be the next test for this province.
What are some of the key issues to improving quality of life both on- and off-reserve?
We need better housing, and better housing conditions will come from people who are better trained to build those houses. Better water quality will come with more investment in water structure. Economic development — that’s the way forward.
But I [also] think we need to change our message a little bit when it comes to what it is we desire. We want programs that aren’t going to keep our people dependent — we need leadership, both on a community level and here at FSIN, that says we need to be more self-determining.
What kind of economic opportunities do you see for First Nations people in Saskatchewan?
There are significant opportunities in developing resources. Any new potash mine, gold and diamond mines — any types of construction jobs are prioritized by our people. Many of our young men and women are taking up trades in various areas, and those skills are transferable to many different sectors. Those really need to be promoted in a big way.
What concerns do you have in terms of First Nations people living in urban centres?
We do need a focus on the three basic things: food and shelter and clothing. To achieve those things we need to have people employed. We need a much greater emphasis on people so they don’t fall through the cracks.
If we have children who are getting up and going to school, if we have healthy parents who are providing that stable environment for those children, we all win. If we can just accomplish those three things, I think we’ll be able to do great things.
TALKING TO RACISTS 101
You know those times when you’re sitting in a pub/coffee shop/wherever and some ignorant jagoff a few tables away spouts off about how “those Indians get everything for free while I pay taxes through the nose!” or other similarly misinformed bits of racist crap?
Well, we put a few questions along those lines to FSIN Chief Guy Lonechild — and the result is this handy sidebar. Which you can simply drop on that jerkwad’s table as you walk by.
He probably won’t learn anything from it but I bet it’ll make you feel better! /Charles Hamilton
Q: Why don’t First Nations people pay taxes?
A: That’s a significant myth — we pay a large amount of taxes. Property tax and provincial sales tax, goods and services taxes, fuel taxes, income taxes — we pay a lot of taxes. It’s a treaty right and responsibility of the government not to impose taxes on First Nations people, but that’s not the [situation] — that is a treaty promise that’s been broken. We pay all the forms of taxes that other people pay in Canada — I don’t know of a tax that we don’t pay.
Q: Why does the government keep giving you land?
A: Again that is a misconception. This is our land — it’s not Canada’s, it’s not Saskatchewan’s. But what we did decide to do is share this land with you, plain and simple.
Q: Why is post-secondary education free?
A: Again, it’s a treaty right. But not everyone is able to attend post-secondary education, [and] when the government puts limits on the funding of post-secondary [studies] not everyone gets to go — we have long waiting lists. And it isn’t free — this was an understanding where we shared this land, this territory and these resources for treaty promises, [one of] which was education. Nothing was ever given up for free.
Q: Why is drug and alcohol abuse so rampant among First Nations people?
A: There were a considerable amount of bad policies in the past. The residential school policy, for example — taking children out of their homes and communities and putting them in the hands of people who would abuse them — those were atrocities that Canada is trying to rectify and change, that First Nations are trying to change. It’s about trying to restore those traditional family units that have been supportive, and those communities that have been supportive. So we need to get back to “it takes a community to raise a child” — that concept.
It’s about not just reconciling the person, but also the relationship between that person and their community. We’ve been guilty in this country of not paying enough attention to ways we can keep our families together. That systemic problem is still there in the child welfare system — we have over five thousand First Nations kids who are in an overcrowded foster care system. That feeds the cycle, and that’s a root cause of alcohol and drug use — people who are just lost souls. They need a lot of support.