Northern Ontario’s First Nations Voice: http://wawataynews.ca/
Before the creation of Nishnawbe Aski Nation there was not a lot of funding to go around, save for a few very small programs at the community level, recalled Eabameetong’s Harvey Yesno. “Our focus at the time was bringing basic services like policing, housing and electrification into our communities,” said Yesno.
Yesno had arrived onto the political stage in the late 1970s as a young chief after having served as his community’s economic development officer and band manager. By this time, many family groups had already moved off the land from their traditional trap lines and onto reserves. In those days, the reserves had very little infrastructure or even programs and services. Many communities did not have airports, social programming or reliable access to the outside world.
First Nations had recently been granted the right to vote in Canadian elections, and were only recently able to step off reserve lands to go hunting without permission from the minister of Indian Affairs. Children were still required by law to attend residential schools, and many were being taken from their communities and adopted into white families as per the federal government’s policy of assimilation.
By then Native peoples had begun to speak of their desire for the recognition of their inherent right to self-government and access to programs and services that would improve their quality of life.
Andrew Rickard, a Moose Cree band member, saw that the needs of the First Nations were not being met on many fronts. With the intention of improving the quality of life for the people, Rickard founded Grand Council Treaty No. 9, later renamed Nishnawbe Aski Nation, to represent the collective social, political and cultural aspirations of the people within the area. Rickard became Grand Council Treaty No. 9’s first president and grand chief. He served from 1973 to 1979.
During Rickard’s tenure Grand Council Treaty No. 9 changed telecommunications in northern Ontario, brought air access to remote communities in the North and was one of the founding members of Chiefs of Ontario, which after 30 years, still exists today. Rickard also helped found National Indian Brotherhood, which is now known as Assembly of First Nations.
One of the key pillars the people grasped under Rickard’s leadership was that within northern Ontario were the homelands of the people and they were willing to defend those at all costs, said Wally McKay when he visited Moose Cree in September 2006 to say goodbye to his longtime friend and colleague at Rickard’s funeral.
“Andrew Rickard was a fervent leader,” said McKay, who served as Nishnawbe Aski Nation’s leader from 1979 to 1982 immediately after Rickard left office. “He wanted change, a better quality of life for First Nations. He was consumed with the everyday life issues of the people.”
According to those close to him at the time, Rickard’s style was to push rather than be pushed.
“He planned, he strategized carefully and attacked with success,” said Rickard’s sister Pauline at his funeral.
When the Conservative government that ruled Ontario had granted clear cutting rights to about 100 square miles of land to a foreign paper company called Reed International, Rickard stepped forward, McKay recalled.
“Andrew realized and recognized the profound impacts from such a contract – a contract that would devastate the region, devastate the livelihood of his people; a contract that would deny any opportunity for self-sufficiency for his people,” McKay said.
And the people stood by him, said McKay.
“They closed ranks because they were awed by his passion, commitment and his fearless resolve to seek justice.”
After years of Rickard’s campaigning, the Conservative government retracted its agreement with Reed International.
Shortly after the Reed Campaign, Rickard began to visualize the need for the North to formulate a manifesto that would be the ‘heartbeat’ of the nation.
Through various means, including consultation with Elders, the manifesto evolved. In 1979, Grand Council Treaty No. 9 issued the Declaration of Nishnawbe Aski.
The declaration, which represents the social, economic, cultural and political aspirations of the people of what is now known as Nishnawbe Aski Nation, contained 10 key statements, including:
1. The right to self-government.
2. The right to receive compensation for our exploited natural resources.
3. The right to receive compensation for the destruction and abrogation of our hunting and fishing rights.
4. The right to re-negotiate our treaty.
5. The right to negotiate with the elected governments of your society through appropriate levels of representation.
6. The right to approach the judicial, governmental, and business institutions of your society in our quest for self-determination and local control.
7. The right of our elected chiefs to deal with your society’s elected cabinets on an equal basis.
8. The right to approach other world nations to further the aims of the Cree and Ojibway Nations of Treaty 9.
9. The right to use every necessary alternative to further the cause of our people.
10. The right to use all that the creator has given us to help all of mankind.
When the Declaration was issued, Yesno noted there was a plan to implement the contents of the document by the year 2000.
“Years later I approached Fred Plain, who worked alongside Andy during the years the declaration was a work-in-progress, and asked him why the declaration wasn’t implemented as was originally planned,” Yesno said. “Fred told me ‘we never got a chance to put a communications plan in place so the communities would understand how to implement the declaration in its entirety,’ which I think is unfortunate. You see they had anticipated that the federal and provincial governments would find ways to throw ‘monkey wrenches’ into that plan so that we are not strong as a nation.”
Despite this, Yesno said the First Nations continue their march forward to implement the contents of that document.