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Who speaks for Aboriginal people?

As B.C. has been discovering, the question of who speaks for who is complicated – and often misleading.
credit: Alex Hsuan Tsui /

I’ve watched the Aboriginal leadership question come up before in various situations. I was never quite clear on it myself.

When you see an organization with an impressive name like the “Union of BC Indian Chiefs,” the “Assembly of First Nations” or the “Leadership Council,” its easy to think that, somehow, these organizations are the people in charge of Aboriginals.

As a newly elected band councilor in 2003, I had to find out for myself that this wasn’t the case.

Most Aboriginals don’t question who speaks or acts on their behalf, so the general public assumes these organizations represent the will of the Aboriginal people.

There are representatives from communities who may attend these meetings; they might even be members. But there is no authority for these organizations to act on behalf of any communities – let alone represent Aboriginal rights and title interests.

In most communities, the most formalized type of leadership structure is elected band councils who, for the most part, must follow rules designed for voter participation.

If there is a working relationship with their hereditary leadership, the question becomes, in what manner and is it a formal part of their governance?

Every community is different in this respect - including how their leadership structure evolved.

In most case, outside parties, seeing a glimpse of uncertainty in a communities leadership structure will use it as way to divide the community for their own agendas.

These outsiders who take advantage of a communities internal issues have no interest in the community or band members situations. They also take no responsibility for the community breaking down into bitter fights where families break up and friendships are ended.

Once a community is divided and of no use to the outside manipulators, the outsiders will leave. The community in question will take years, if not decades, to heal.

Our own community experienced this – and we are still trying to reconcile with each other.

At the end of the day, amongst all the talk of leadership, rights and title or politics, I still stick to my belief: none of this is worth anything unless we help our members out of poverty, unemployment, and all the associated problems average band members are dealing with.

Ellis Ross is the former Chief Councillor for the Haisla Nation, and currently serves as the MLA for Skeena