There is a vacancy atop Canada's leading aboriginal political organization, the Assembly of First Nations (AFN), and it's been said that nature hates a vacuum. Native politics, like non-native politics, tends to follow the laws of physics.
Back in May, Shawn Atleo, the then national chief, abruptly abdicated amidst controversy over his support of the federal government's aboriginal education act, Bill C-33. Atleo said he didn't want to be a "lightning rod" for criticism of the policy. Many prominent and talented prospective candidates have been doodling "National Chief" in front of their names ever since.
The most interesting of those pondering sticking an indigenous toe in the murky waters of national politics is Wab Kinew. The chief is dead; long live the chief.
A growing media presence, Kinew has travelled many trails in his 32 years. He's the University of Winnipeg's first director of indigenous inclusion and the host of Fault Lines on Al-Jazeera America. He hosted CBC-TV's national documentary series 8th Fire and won an Aboriginal Peoples Choice Music Award in 2009 for his rap CD, Live by The Drum. He championed Joseph Boyden's novel The Orenda in this year's Canada Reads competition on CBC Radio and won against formidable opponents like former ambassador to the UN Stephen Lewis. He's signed a deal with Penguin Canada to write his autobiography. At 32!
The man has his finger on many of the issues circulating through the country's First Nations communities. But is that enough?
Yes, Kinew is charismatic, smart, knowledgeable. But it will take more than that to handle 633 rambunctious chiefs coming from all different directions in Canada, plus a prime minister who most native leaders feel is just a little to the right of Custer. Many still wince at the PM's decision to shake hands with a pair of Chinese pandas in Toronto instead of a group of Cree teenagers who had walked from the James Bay area to meet with the man.
Some tout Kinew as the Justin Trudeau of the aboriginal community, the bringer of new, innovative ideas to what is essentially an old boys' club. He's not only camera-pleasing, but, like Trudeau, is the son of a prominent politician and academic, and he's very popular with progressive First Nations leaders. But is a rock star what native politics needs to take on Harper and win?
Kinew tells me, "We are in a unique era when First Nations people are moving ahead in big ways but still face too many challenges. At the same time, there is a stronger desire among average Canadians to get things right with indigenous people. I want to help make sure we take advantage of those two big trends and take a real step towards the vision our ancestors had of sharing the land [for our] mutual benefit."
"Education, reform of AFN governance and nation-building" are important to him. But the "biggest issue is making the AFN financially inde-pen-dent of the federal government." Sounds like strong medicine.
There's this hope: "There isn't a better [native] communicator in Canada today," says Hayden King, director of the Centre for Indigenous Governance at Ryerson University.
But then there's the reality: "The AFN is in decline," says King. "And has been for some time. I'm not sure even Wab can save it."
Kinew's biggest weakness is his air of urban intellectuality, of remoteness from the reserve grassroots. These are the people who regularly deal with black mould in their houses, if they have houses, or with being flooded out by temperamental rivers, or facing law officials in severe need of equity and diversity training.
In the last AFN election several years ago, many of the candidates had that same aura of sophistication. But native chiefs want their leader to be both smart and homey, somewhere between a low-fat, decaf latte and an instant coffee spiked with Carnation Evaporated Milk.
Native author and activist Lee Maracle believes Kinew has the right stuff. "He is connected to many of the issues indigenous people face, has a solid view of colonialism but is an extremely reasonable and intelligent man. I believe he would consult more effectively with his constituents and move ahead with them in mind. He is not afraid to take the lead but is always aware of those he stands with."
It's important to remember that the prime function of the national chief of the AFN is to represent status reserve members in Ottawa, those people in First Nations communities scattered all across Canada: fishermen, ranchers, small businessmen, traditional hunters, the poor, the well off, those with land claims and those who sit in their kitchen writing articles about potential politicians. Off-reserve and non-status aboriginal people are not included in the AFN mandate. They're represented by the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples, whence sprang Stephen Harper Senate appointee Patrick Brazeau. The less said about that the better.
Mastery of the job involves juggling around half a million people with over a dozen separate and different languages, cultures, priorities, problems and prejudices.
Dan David, a Mohawk journalist from Kanehsatake, has mixed emotions about Kinew's interest in Indian country's top job. "As an academic, he's been in a position to be able to speak his mind. Academia provides him a platform to say things that might provoke. [But] so far, his comments have been aimed at tweaking white guilt and sentiment. What he's said on a national platform has been relatively safe. He's also said nothing that's been controversial to anyone in Indian country. And that's where it really counts if he's going to run for national thief." (The "thief" reference is a native joke. He means national chief.)
Native author Thomas King, who ran federally for the NDP, once told me that as a politician you are not allowed to possess a sense of irony. Quoted out of context, it can kill you.
Kinew will definitely have his hands full if he decides to run. One Mi'kmaq journalist from Nova Scotia who declined to be named here doubts he will sweep in and take the election by storm.
"In order to successfully run for national chief, a candidate has to be known amongst the chiefs who elect him. This means the candidate has to already have leadership experience at the national political level. He/she would have experience as a chief of a First Nation, have taken up executive positions in regional and national political organizations. The candidate needs to do major schmoozing during AFN meetings. That may hurt him in the long run."
Still, it's an interesting idea. A national chief who can talk about literature as well as policy. Harper may be able to play the piano, but Kinew can rap. Maybe he's just what native politics needs.