In Depth Interview with Chief Isadore Day, Serpent River First Nation
“We all love our kids, we all want a better life for them when it comes down to whats most important.” – Chief Day
POLITICS – Chief Isadore Day from Serpent River First Nation talks politics, family and arm wresting with Iksokapi Magazine. Elected in 2005, Chief Day leads a community of over 1300 people (2013) located in the Northern Ontario Great Lakes Region, an Ojibway community who are part of the Robinson Huron Treaty, signed on September 5th 1850.
How would you describe yourself?
I am a firm believer in the notion that everyone has their place in this world; so to that end, I think I am at where I need to be in my life and in turn, try the best that I can to serve that role. That means home, work and in a spiritual sense. People have individual traits and strengths, this is what makes up who we are; and to that end, I also believe that we are meant to use those things for the greater good – I have always had a keen sense of this. Im a person who knows myself more and more everyday and I always try to find out where that fits into the greater good of the community.
My role as Chief is elected by the people and its role is one of the most incredible experiences in my life – so I approach it with the utmost sense of importance and integrity. To define the role – it is to chair meetings, to provide oversight with my team, Council, negotiating and communicating on behalf of the First Nation, to make sure our First Nation is strong in the area of program and service delivery; planning and making governance changes when needed; those are very defined in terms of practice of good governance.
Some of the fundamental roles of the position of Chief are to care for ALL citizens, to be the voice of the collective, to uphold the values and worldview of the Anishinabe of Serpent River, to protect the rights and interests of the most vulnerable and those that cannot speak for themselves. As a Chief I am ultimately a defender of the Land, the People and the inherent and treaty birthright of our citizens. The chief is truly the head of a Nation. It is a very important role that comes with it a long list of responsibilities and priorities.
What attributes do you bring to the position?
I am a strong believer that ALL people have rights and can add value to the greater good of mankind; even the most troubled in this world – we are not judges and we are not persecutors of character as leaders and we must work to lift up our people. The strongest attribute that I bring is determination to be better than I was yesterday; we have yesterday to learn from for today, and if we are granted another day tomorrow; its more room on the slate to make the changes that we didn’t notice today!
I love people, my family and friends – I love the land, and that I am an Anishinabe man. I have a growing understanding of our teachings and am getting better at accepting them in my life. This helps me do my job as a community leader and chair of our Council. Knowledge comes easy to me with the tools I gained through education – the attribute of wisdom; well, lets just say that it comes from the people and their wisdom helps me connect the dots and helps me facilitate the decision-making process.
Much of my attributes, I am finding, are in my Anishinabe name, clan, colours and in the instructions that I am given by my teachers and those in the community that are there to give guidance and direction to community leaders.
What do you enjoy most of about being a Chief of a First Nation?
Thats easy – watching the community grow. I am always amazed when I look around after 10 years; these kids growing up; they are going to university; they are sitting at the drum; they are dancing; they are beautiful people that are the life that we always work to protect and help flourish.
I also enjoy when we see physical development that helps us gather and grow further as a community; like the Community Lifestyle Centre and Water Treatment Plant that we are breaking ground for this week. Watching things happen because we all worked together is a big charge to my enthusiasm and motivation to keep going forward.
I also like being part of a collective of leaders in this country that are fighting for things that are right and just. I enjoy being someone who can help make a noted difference in the direction and path forward for First Nation people at all levels in this country; lets face it, there is no political position that can overstep the confined of federalism in this country than a First Nation Chief – and that is because of the authority vested in the Chief by the people! Thats way passed cool – that is very honourable and a privilege that many people never experience.
What challenges do you face as a leader?
Wow; thats a loaded question!! LOL. Here goes: the biggest challenge is me! On a personal/political level, it is often myself who prevents epiphany and enlightenment. Listen, this, on one hand is pretty complex stuff. On the other hand, we can only do so much, we can only do what we have the resources for, we can only go where the people understand or where they want to go, we can make things easier on ourselves as Chiefs if we wrap our heads around some of these rules of thumb.
Myself, I tend to get top heavy with an extensive amount of issues – simply because we have many issues facing us as First Nations linked into what is Canada and provincial jurisdiction – we have many issues to deal with that I seem to always entertain as a challenge against our people. Im always ready to fight on most issues and challenges – thats a challenge in itself because of some very clear pressures, like human capacity, fiscal issues, competing ideologies and an outright denial of government to recognize our Nationhood.
Well, 2013 was the year of “Idle No More” and it clearly defined a new level of collective consciousness of Indigenous People on Turtle Island. It was a highlight on many levels for many people. In my community, Serpent River First Nation, the youth were very involved and they kept a pace of momentum that was to be followed because they were saying, “this is about our future; so this is something that our leaders must support.” The Youth became one of the most important elements of the Idle No More movement along with the women in our nations.
The women, I feel have not yet made the impact that will help move our people forward in a way that is truly based on a ‘people-driven’ manner. But the women were certainly evident in the INM movement – water, environment and the protection of life, as life-givers the women stood out. In terms highlights that are critical in nature, I would say that the current federal and provincial governments in this country have maintained a “true-to-form” approach on First Nations issues in this country.
The move toward a narrowly-focused economy-based Canada is a signal that the country is still oblivious to First Nation issues. Take for example, the ‘Missing and Murdered Aboriginal Women’ issue that has taken a back seat to other federal priorities – like government investment in economic development. Don’t get me wrong, I am for meaningful economies, but this country has its priorities in the wrong order!
A notable highlight of 2013 was the passing of the “Warrior of Peace” Nelson Mandela. His legacy was one of fighting an injustice that is rooted in Canada’s infamous and still-instituted ‘Indian Act.’ This was one highlight that, in my mind, needed to be used to illuminate injustice of the Indigenous Peoples here on Turtle Island.
What is on the agenda for 2014?
Many issues, planning and priorities. As I have just been re-elected, I have a platform that is based on our First Nations current community comprehensive planning and our deliverables from a multitude of contribution agreements and funding transfers in health, education etc. The platform that I have been elected on is “Building Our Nation; with Confidence, Strength and Stability.” This is detailed and covers quite a bit. Readers can look at my website isadoreday.ca this lays most of the agenda out in detail. This, by virtue of becoming re-elected, becomes the mandated agenda – what you see is what you get.
We have a challenging agenda – that is always how I set the pace and the approach. We are forced to push hard and to set ourselves in a “go-forward” mode; at the same time we MUST make sure we take care of the day to day issues. Lets also look here in our region, we are facing a provincial election. Some perceive that the liberals here in this province are fighting for their political life – I would agree so I will be working hard to make sure that we have as much as we can in-play and resolved before the next provincial election. On the federal level, we know that we fight hard to have issues addressed like imposed legislation and mass funding cuts. 2014 is proving to be a real marker for confusion and political impotency for organizations like the AFN and other PTO’s, the culprit being governments pulling funding out in mass proportions not known in the history of First Nation organizations.
This all spells major political paralysis for many well intentioned organizations. As First Nations, we have to make this a priority agenda at all levels and we must find a unified path forward to stop this inhumane approach set out by the Harper conservatives. Let me clear though that this goes way beyond funding; we must have some sobering dialogue about First Nation jurisdiction and Indigenous sovereignty. 2014 – it will be an interesting year for sure.
My priorities are to remain as close to the ground as possible. I mean that in a metaphorical and in a literal sense. Much of what we are dealing with politically is about land. Environmentally, we know that colonial jurisdictions are still after resources – as I mentioned earlier, this society is living in an era where governments are desperately clawing away at a piece of the wealth that flows out of the global economy.
What they need to be a player in this game is Indigenous land and treaty territory. That is the major political driver – the land. In a metaphorical sense, I think that its easy to get caught-up in the speed and the high-level political vacuum that gets created when dealing with high-level issues. Keeping real and close to the ground is critical.
One year has passed since the the highly publicized January 11th, 2013 meeting that occurred between some First Nation Chiefs and Stephen Harper, what progress has been made in your view?
There are some that may have benefited from attending that meeting – but in large, nothing has resulted from that process but imposition of legislation and massive funding cuts. The AFN had no mandate to go into that meeting and in my view, which is in line with that of a heavy majority of First Nation leaders in this country, their attendance in that meeting was at the detriment to unity and political authority of who makes up the Assembly of First Nations, our communities.
The end result of that meeting was division and dilution. There was progress made but it was greater erosion and termination of funding. Let me state for the record, and in my view, this was a fatal error politically for the Assembly of First Nations. First Nations politicians come and go but the losers here are our First Nations that rely on the AFN to be fighters for political justice and advocacy for First Nation jurisdiction.
How do you see First Nations moving forward?
It depends on what you mean by that. Socio-political-economical advancement is vital for all of our First Nations. The types of opportunities that exist for some First Nations are not always the same for others. Regional issues and considerations are always a factor that get overlooked when trying to generalize First Nation issues.
Take for example, language and culture; these two very important part of a First Nation social fabric is going to have different aspects and impacts based on what region of the country they are located. Access to the land and traditional practices like harvesting and mode of travel often have a direct impact on language.
The point is this – First Nations have different priorities and often very distinct resource challenges for each area. Take for example the current issues surrounding the First Nation Control of First Nation Education Act; this is gonna be an issue that each First Nation will need to examine based on financial resources, education goals that are aimed at closing the gap and ultimately, First Nations are gonna want to look at the issue of First Nation jurisdiction and authority – what is the impact today and what will the results be tomorrow?
Clearly there is going to be much to consider as First Nation communities consider their path forward. Simply, will First Nations work toward occupying the field and asserting more jurisdiction or will we see more federal infringement on those rights and devolution of authority to the provinces on matters like education and health? My view is that First Nation jurisdiction is our target but human resource capacity and financial resources will be essential. To that end however, First Nations must also seek to ensure that identity and culture are intact and well imbedded as guideposts that keep our communities on point as far as Nationhood models as opposed to more colonial rule.
Political implosion should never be our plight. We have much to gain when we are working together. The real challenge will be whether or not the heads of some of these organizations are generating the right decisions from the proper source and mandate. So that I am not pointing at any one organization in particular, let’s just say that the majority of First Nation organizations that are funded directly from either the federal government or the provinces stand the potential of being heavily scrutinized – and rightfully so; often there is no direct and measured accountability back to First Nation citizens for decisions made by the governing authority of these organizations.
My point to all that discussion is this – if we don’t get this accountability piece right with respect to these organizations that are often led by government study and directive, we are going to see more and more protests, and because government doesn’t generally listen to our issues, First Nations are going to start being more direct with organizations within our own circle that are suppose to be advocating and coordinating political advocacy on their behalf.
So, in short, I think we are going to start seeing more protests internal to our own, simply because our people want answers and they want action; and protesters will shake up what ever foundation will reap movement.
Its here to stay, at least for the next generation. Who knows how it will evolve a decade from now. I do think it has helped create major change and awareness among our own people. Exposing the real issues and the real impacts of poverty in First Nations – social media has helped make some real headway. I do think that First Nations have a real distinct challenge that should be observed carefully. As we know, assimilation has always been the fear and the issue to avoid – assimilation is a characteristic of social media that is ultimately the target. First Nations can use this to benefit our political and community planning efforts – but we must be mindful of the challenges and limitations that current social media applications provide.
For example, texting and Facebook, Twitter and blogging, it all has superficial depth and no way to gauge emotion. This means that the human touch and personal contact is lost. This can really have an impact on the quality of communication that we see come from social media. As well, lets not forget that not everyone is into social media – this means a segment of First Nation population is not accessing social media messaging. In Serpent River First Nation, we are going to examine technology, the internet and social media in some level of depth this term. I will be putting forward a discussion as such and will propose that we seek out a process to engage all demographic groups in the community to modernize a plan to ensure that the younger generation are left with a solid and standardized approach to social media in our community.
A desired outcome of this process might be developing a Seven Grandfather Teaching manual for Social Media or a Indigenous Code of Principle with a focus of “not losing Indigenous identity” online.
Our Children – and their future that depends on us as First Nation leaders to protect, preserve and push for the best possible outcome for modern day treaty implementation that can be possible in todays terms. I think that many have already paid the price for political justice for our First Nations. People like Shannon Koostachin from Attiwapiskat who began a revolution of awareness about First Nation right to adequate schools and teaching resources. Then there is Dudley George who lost his life in peaceful demonstration protecting First Nation burial grounds at Ipperwash Park in the 1990’s. We can go on and on with the examples.
I think we have to take respectful pause at this time to acknowledge and honour he Inuk woman Loretta Saunders who went missing on February 13th 2014 and who was found murdered shortly soon after being reported missing. Wanting to have a better life for our people, thats what these three had in common. All of them and many others that help guide the path to justice for our people inspire me to get up and try to make sure that their lives are not cut short in vain. There is much inspiration and drive that I have for my own children and family – ultimately, I like to see hope as a final reflection in a days work. That often takes getting up with drive and positive intent to make whatever change is needed to feel good at the end of the day!
It has been said that there is a disconnect in First Nation’s communities among various groups including; elders/youth leadership/grassroots people, men/women – how do you see this changing or improving?
Yes – the gap does rear itself often in our First Nation communities. To me its in large part due to two things – colonialism and technology. Colonial history is real and so are the impacts. Loss of language and disconnect of families as far back as the turn of the 19th century is a direct result of residential schools – we know this. This becomes one of the clearest consequences known to our First Nations as to why we are in such social turmoil, yet the healing is hard pressed with other priorities. Also, another complexity that goes with this is the fact that the younger generations today are thinking well into their future and for the most part cannot fully appreciate the full effects of residential schools that their grandparents generation has experienced.
This type of work is helping with this divide – but it will take well into the next generation to see the results of an era of healing that began in the 1990’s. On the issue of technology – its quite clear, the way in which we communicate and relate to one another has drastically changed. It is important to First Nations to have a defined discussion and dialogue in the community as to how to address age-old and emerging issues of communication. Listen, to get to the root of division in our communities is a big exercise – ultimately, I suspect it will take a strong principled approach that seeks to create transparency and responsible dialogue among the various groups in our community. A point of centre and focus should ultimately be our children and their future. We all love our kids, we all want a better life for them when it comes down to whats most important.
What advice do you have for others who aspire for a career in politics?
Education is very very helpful. The multi-dynamic nature of First Nation governance is much to be understood and is always changing by many influences. If someone wants to join the ranks of leaders addressing the issues that their people face, its certain that social issues are going to be a focus, infrastructure development will be a challenge, economic policy and planning will be on the agenda, human resources and human rights legislation – another emerging issue; the list is long. First Nations leaders with education under their belt as one of the tools to bring to the job will help increase successful efforts.
Knowing the community is vital; if not the most important pre-requisite for leadership. Taking time to acknowledge the strengths and the capacity that exist in the community is only going to help build a base of support – not only when getting elected, but after the ballots have been counted; a strong team is vital. What means the most to a strong team is confidence in a leader. It will be important for new leaders coming in to ensure that citizens can confide in them and that there is an effort to help affect change for that person or issue in the community.
I would have to say that being a First Nation leader has its highs and lows – personal health and wellbeing should #1 priority. There is no value in being sick or running oneself into the ground, you’re no good to anyone like that. Eat well, sleep till your rested and take time for facility, which is by far the most important element of a successful leaders life – his or her family.
What goals have you set for yourself?
To maintain personal health and well being in 2014; to achieve the most that I can in the “Building Our Nation” platform for Serpent River First Nation in 2014-15; to seek out new opportunities to build on treaty enforcement modelling that calls government and industry to task effectively, leading to the full recognition of First Nation jurisdiction and authority within our treaty lands and territory. To build successful projects in Serpent River First Nation that seek to achieve the highest outcomes and outputs aimed at sustainable development.
What are your interests outside of politics?
I love being home with my family and watching them happy. Children do grow fast, so I like to take as much time as I can to help in that process. I like to play music and love the land. Im a fisherman and harvester who spends much time out on the water. Powwow time is awesome and being part of that circle of life is always a boost to my soul. I have taken a special interest in health and fitness over the last year, so I am finding it interesting to try new diets and fitness practices that give results that affect my life in a positive way. Im also contemplating writing a book – but perhaps when I have a bit more time. For now, I will seek out ways to enjoy my family with the time that I have between meetings and deadlines.
Who would win in an arm wrestling contest, you or Stephen Harper?
Thats funny! I would forfeit that one and would much rather watch him and Shawn Atleo battle it out. We all know who would win that one – its all part of Canada’s Joint Action Plan with First Nations. The National Chief would use his rhetorical wrist lock and make it look like a sure win – but leave it in the hands of the PMO, whats new?
(Photos provided by Chief Day)