Debates arising from the recent Idle No More movement have revealed two main interpretations of what comprises the grassroots. One seeks to exclude band councils, while the other views chiefs & councillors as an integral part of the grassroots, simply by virtue of them being members of the community. Clearly, we need some basic understanding of what constitutes the grassroots in order to advance our movement.
Community elites, band councils, and the grassroots
According to one definition, the grassroots are “the common or ordinary people, especially as contrasted with the leadership or elite of a political party, social organization, etc.; the rank and file” (http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/grassroots ).
In a political party, there are officials who have power and control over the organization. There is a party leader, a treasurer, a secretary and a chair, who together form the executive. They control the resources of the party, including money, buildings, communications, and staff, and make decisions based on a chain-of-command (from the executive down to the staff workers).
The political party shares the same basic organization as a corporation, a state government, and a military force. All are structured as a pyramid of power, with hierarchies, centralized power, and authoritarian means of control. At the top is a commander, president, or chief executive officer. Below this are their executive or general staff of officers, who in turn control various parts of the organization (committees, or military units, for example). At the bottom are the rank-and-file workers, party members, or soldiers.
The band councils imposed under the 1876 Indian Act have the same form of organization as the political party, state or municipal government, corporation, etc. At the top is the band chief, assisted by other councillors, who together control most of the resources of the band, including funding, authority over housing, education, social services, infrastructure, etc. They control most communications & social spaces. They employ staff workers to carry out much of the day-to-day work, and are often the main employers on reserves. Political organizations formed by the band councils also have the same type of organizations and resources at their disposal (for example, the Assembly of First Nations).
Based on these definitions alone, I would assert that band councils as well as their political organizations are not a part of the grassroots. It doesn’t matter that they live within the community, or are family members. They form an elite within the community and wield far greater power than the community members themselves.
Furthermore, they gain their special legal, political and economic power from the colonial state in the form of funding, government legislation, recognition as official leaders, etc. Not only do they have their own interests as an elite (which may include their preservation as a band council, wealth, status, power, etc.), they are also vulnerable to state control, manipulation, and even liquidation. In short, they are totally dependent on the state for their continued existence, not on the grassroots people.
From this, we can conclude that the grassroots isn’t simply members of the community, but is instead those community members who do not hold positions of political or economic power. It is through the exercise of such power that elites impose control over the community, which contradicts the very meaning of grassroots organizing.
How should Native grassroots movements relate to band councils and other elites?
There are over 600 band councils in Canada. Like Indigenous nations across the country, they are not a homogenous group. These differences result from their unique histories, cultures, environment, etc.
I have been accused of being overly harsh towards the band councils, with some asserting that not all are corrupt collaborators. In practise I know this to be true, as I have worked with some band chiefs on campaigns involving grassroots people. Some of them seemed sincere and well intentioned. Many were also opportunistic.
Some band councils may be genuinely interested in participating in a movement because it defends people, territory and way of life. Some are pressured by grassroots people to support a particular campaign. Others, of course, oppose grassroots efforts, and openly work with the police and government to suppress them.
Our relationship with individual Indian Act chiefs or councillors may be on a case-by-case basis, but it should also be based on principles that apply to all elites that seek to work as allies. Grassroots movements:
“…must include people from the groups most affected by an issue, and must not be dominated by wealthy, educated, and well-meaning allies. The wealthy can be allies who bring resources but they have to know when and how to take a step back.
“Movements fail when those who are most excluded are sidelined. It is vitally important that that those who are most affected by the issues that the movement is trying to address are propelling that movement.”
(“Bottom-up Organizing,” by Greg Jobin-Leeds, Education Week website)
Elites, such as middle-class professionals, are not necessarily excluded from grassroots movements. They can provide vital resources, including funding, communications, transportation, etc. But these resources should not permit elites to exercise power & control over the group.
Consequently, the leadership of grassroots movements should not be vested in elites or individuals, but rather arise from the the community itself. It is the community members who should meet, discuss, and decide on their course of action. This decision-making power should never be delegated to others, for then the very purpose of grassroots mobilizing would be lost.