World-Class Aboriginal Leadership

21CQ: The Future of the Aboriginal Question



6 years ago

How do we create world-class leaders for Canada’s Indigenous people this century?


Lloyd Axworthy6 years ago

In dealing with the question of aboriginal leadership, I want to build on the recent article written by Wab Kinew and my self in the latest edition of Global Brief. In that essay we make the case that the convergence of forces in Canada including an effective grass roots movement, a series of court cases  granting new powers to aboriginal people, the heightened awareness of the plight of missing and murdered aboriginal women  and the emergence of a number of successful community development enterprises creates the situation for a new set of opportunities for aboriginal people in Canada, that can also have significant international impact.

However, for this to happen there will have to be a new shared system of governance as opposed to the confrontational unilateralist or indifferent style followed by governments, companies educational institutions, police forces and generally most institutions. And at the same time a clear reform commitment from the Chiefs to deal with the governance issues in their own communities.

This will now be put to the test with the recent  election of National Grand Chief Percy Beveridge with a resounding mandate from the Chiefs to deal with the outstanding issues in a tough but engaged way.

In guiding towards the idea of shared governance it’s useful to look at some models. Let me begin with one that was tried, had success and was the abandoned by the previous government. It had to do with joint responsibility between the Assembly Grand Chief Phil Fontaine and my self when I was Foreign Minister. We established the post of Aboriginal Ambassador and appointed Chief Blaine Favel to the post. His responsibilities were to take a lead on negotiations on the Indigenous Convention of Rights, work on creating economic Andy trade ties with other indigenous peoples, especially in the Americas and to trouble shoot on issues such as the civil strife in Chiapas Mexico. The key point was he reported to both the Grand Chief and the Minister and therefore represented the reality that both systems of government had shared interests.

There are similar kinds of partnerships emerging in universities and between some resource companies, and municipalities. But there are not nearly enough working examples to set trends and demonstrate the feasibility of sharing resource,  responsibilities and decision making. This has been a real failure of our thinking institutions: They are not engaged. In the meantime some of the younger leadership is falling back on the mode of demanding pure indigenous institutions, such as colleges and universities which will simply add to the separation. The model we need is captured in bridge building not separate pyramids. This should be the goal jointly espoused by aboriginal and non- aboriginal alike.


Professor Axworthy makes a strong case for the proposition that Aboriginal leadership must develop in the context of shared governance and institutions.  I whole heartedly agree that existing institutions of health care, education, justice do not, and seem incapable of, coming to terms with the unique reality of Indigenous people in Canada.  That reality is both historical – the legacy of residential schools, the omnipresence of the Indian Act, and the crushing weight of colonial imperatives – and present day: the legacy of Indigenous-settler relations weighs heavily on the present day reality of Indigenous people, and is evidenced by over representation in the criminal justice system, high rates of suicide and substance abuse, and a very large number of Indigenous communities that struggle daily to provide basic social services to their citizens.

Part of the problem is resources – tackling the housing issue alone is, for example, a billion dollar problem.  Part of the problem is jurisdictional – communities  need to be able to exercise meaningful control over the resources in their traditional territories, not only as a matter of economic development, but also on matters of stewardship and maintaining a vibrant and healthy relationship with the lands  that have sustained our people for thousands of years.  But part of the problem is leadership.

Indigenous people today face a range of complex global economic, environmental and political challenges in our communities.  Whereas once, we trained our leaders from the time they were very young, taught these young leader the skills they would need to grow into great leaders, today, we still largely send out our youth for education in settler based school curricula, and then elect our community leaders in first past the post settler style elections, as though we were electing mayors and city councilors, and not representatives of our nations and the stewards of our futures.  And make no mistake, our chiefs are not mayors, they are political leaders who must have the ability to act on a world stage in dealing with multinational resource companies.  Our leaders must manage the inflow and out flow of large and complex budgets that pay for a much wider array of services than any municipal government, including matters such as education for its citizens from pre-school to post-secondary, health care, child welfare interventions, funerals, water and other community infrastructure and land and resource management.  To lead in this environment requires more than even the best education the settler people can offer.  To lead in this environment requires leaders grounded in the traditions of our ancestors, raised and steeped in the stories and languages of our communities, and able to manage spreadsheets and economic forecasts.  The question is, how can we today raise, train, educate and such leaders?



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