After being elected to the students' union for the first time, nohta (my father) told me, "Okimawak (chiefs) didn't used to have very much for themselves — they would give away most of what they had to those who needed it."
In nehiyaw (Cree) culture, those who accepted the responsibility of leadership were expected to sacrifice for the community, while being rooted in compassion and selflessness. This was a powerful lesson that stayed with me, and was cemented by many more Indigenous knowledge keepers throughout my journey as an elected person.
In a world that has dispossessed native peoples of their lands, resources, and in many cases their histories, it's dangerous to romanticize pre-contact with settlers. I'm conscious of that and try not to paint a utopian picture when I share what knowledge keepers have told me about the past. But it's also crucial to share traditional values so they can be applied in a contemporary context.
"The gap between the very rich and very poor is larger than ever before in our history."
Indigenous knowledge keepers pass values down from generation to generation. Teachings about appropriate behaviour and relationships to the physical, emotional, spiritual and intellectual worlds are passed down through story, laughter, observation and silence.
In pre-contact nehiyawdom (the Cree world) poverty was a communal phenomenon. If the community faced resource scarcity, it affected everyone. Today individualism and community relationships torn apart by colonization leave individuals living in poverty, depending on government programs that offer little real support, and even less opportunity to get out of poverty. It's common to hear of chiefs and councilors giving to the community's poorest from their paycheques in an attempt to fill gaps in the benefits programs.
It's no secret that Canada is wrestling with increasing income inequality. The gap between the very rich and very poor is larger than ever before in our history. We understand this idea that everyone who works hard can get ahead, but that is increasingly untrue. The stories of our country's poorest ,those we pass on the street or those unseen on reserves, are stories of perseverance, ingenuity and resistance.
We know well that income is the most significant determinant for the health of an individual or community. The Canadian cycle of poverty, which is particularly severe in First Nation communities, is resulting in the growth of health inequities. This harms people and cost us as a society. If we want healthy communities, we need to be bold in exploring solutions that could truly eliminate poverty.
The question before us is clear. If we guaranteed every person a minimum annual income that would meet basic needs, instead of a social assistance program which at best perpetuates poverty, what would we see?
We know that those who have higher incomes usually live longer and have fewer health problems, including diabetes and other illnesses which disproportionately plague First Nations communities.
"Since the creation of reserves it has been government policy to stifle First Nations' prosperity."
This idea isn't new. It's been suggested for decades all along the range of the political spectrum, and in one case has been implemented.
From 1974-1979 a pilot project in Dauphin, Manitoba delivered cheques to those with the lowest income, without conditions on spending. With this support from the federal government, the community changed significantly. Hospitalization rates of those who received the benefits dropped. The graduation rate of children in the project increased. And yet the program was cut, and a final report on the pilot was never released.
Today the idea of a basic income guarantee has gained support from key leadership in Alberta. Don Iveson, mayor of Edmonton, and Naheed Nenshi, Mayor of Calgary, have both thrown their support to an income guarantee pilot project.
This is significant. Both cities have large Indigenous populations that are expected to grow even larger.
We have an opportunity to radically change First Nations communities, to rise from 63rd place, and find justice alongside fellow Canadians. Although beginning this project in First Nations communities would be an ideal place to start, it should be expanded to all Canadians who are considered low-income.
"I firmly believe the first step in reconciliation must be delivering economic justice to First Nations peoples."
Since the creation of reserves it has been government policy to stifle First Nations' prosperity. The old peoples tell us that First Nations were legislated out of the national economy to prevent them from competing with other Canadian communities. We have a chance now to reverse that injustice.
There has been a lot of talk about reconciliation over the last few months, and what that really means. I firmly believe the first step in reconciliation must be delivering economic justice to the First Nations peoples. Reserves and inner cities must be transformed from places marked by destitution, to places of a healthy resurgence and opportunity. This is possible. It's within our reach.
This idea isn't radical. Ensuring that each person has what they need to thrive — not simply survive — in a country where we often boast of our commitment to fairness and compassion, should be commonplace.
Money isn’t going to solve all the problems of First Nations. It will take generations to restore our nations to the levels of health and prosperity that existed before residential schools and colonization, even with a guaranteed basic income. But it will reduce the hardships people face, and bring First Nations at least to the starting line.
When nohta (my father) and other Indigenous knowledge keepers shared stories about what it means to accept leadership in our communities, they were hoping that I would lead from those values. It’s to those knowledge keepers we must return to find the solutions to problems that face our nations. The tales from Indigenous knowledge keepers aren’t just bedtime stories for children. Leaders in government, non-profit, industry and activism need to hear them. Nehiyaw (Cree) stories that tell about values should, can, and will guide progressive public policy in Canada’s future.
The end goal is the healthiest Canada possible. Reaching that goal starts with the introduction of a basic income guarantee.
Max FineDay is nēhiyaw (Cree) from Sweetgrass First Nation, he recently finished serving as the President of the University of Saskatchewan Students’ Union representing 18,000 undergraduate students for 2013-2014 and 2014-2015.
Most of Max’s work focuses on both the student and First Nations movements. He is passionate about youth leadership development, theories for change making, and increasing the accessibility of post-secondary education for traditionally underrepresented communities. Max was the first co-coordinator/developer of “Next Up: First Nations & Metis Youth in Action” which focuses on Indigenous Youth Activist Training & Leadership development. He has just completed a Bachelor of Arts degree majoring in Political Studies at the University of Saskatchewan and has also studied in the Arctic Circle at the University of Nordland in Bodø, Norway.
When Max isn’t rabble-rousing you can find him learning nêhiyawewin (Cree language), tweeting, and laughing at his own jokes.
All photos by Max Fineday.