Grand Chief Derek Nepinak (front) of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs meets up with protestors as they march from Victoria Island to Parliament Hill. (Patrick Doyle/CP)
The Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, already operating with half its normal staff, says it has less than four months to figure out how to keep the organization afloat.
In April, the full extent of Ottawa's cut to AMC’s core funding will be felt, with budgets chopped by 80 per cent from $2.5 million to $500,000 per year.
Grand Chief Derek Nepinak says that amount of money will basically just keep the lights on.
Nepinak said when he was first elected in 2011, he was given a warning from the federal Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Department.
“They said, 'You are going to toe the line with our policy objectives or things are going to get quiet in Manitoba,'” Nepinak said.
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“I think that was unfortunately the plan — to really silence the voice of First Nations people."
The federal department says it made the changes so funding will be more equal across the board.
Nepinak has been one of Manitoba’s most outspoken grand chiefs. Over the past year, he has also been a loud voice in the Idle No More movement.
In September 2012, when the federal funding cut was announced, the AMC had a staff of 75 people. Now it’s down to less than half that number.
The grand chief's inner circle of policy makers originally had 27 people, but it will shrink to 11.
Quieting the Aboriginal voice?
Nepinak said with those people gone, it will now be next to impossible to provide political advocacy on First Nations issues. AMC will have to pick and choose its battles with the government, he added.
Educator and Idle No More activist Leah Gazan says she believes these cuts have less to do with funding equity and everything to do with quieting the aboriginal voice.
“I think Stephen Harper has a strategic plan in place,” she said, pointing to federal bills pushed through government that she said threaten the environment and First Nations' treaty rights.
Gazan said she believes the prime minister is feeling threatened because people are standing up to his corporate and resource development agendas.
“If you don’t abide by that, if you don’t play into that, then he cuts you off at the knees," she said.
Manitoba’s former grand chief, Ron Evans, says he doesn’t believe Nepinak has been targeted, as funding cuts are happening across the board.
“When I was there and other previous leaders, we expressed our opposition to things that the governments were doing, things we didn’t agree with,” said Evans. “We protested, but we didn’t experience anything because of that.”
Evans, who is chief of the Norway House Cree Nation, said Nepinak is pushing his own agenda rather than doing the job he was elected to do. He is concerned about how the cuts will affect the 61 First Nations that AMC represents.
The chiefs get together several times a year to implement strategies and work to change provincial and federal policies. Evans said that’s what keeps the organization strong.
“When you diminish that, it weakens the organization to the point where it becomes very ineffective,” he said.
While Gazan acknowledges the capped funding will impact the organization, she believes the AMC will survive.
“I think it's how you choose to spend money,” she said. “I mean, we can keep feeding the monster that was put in place to destroy us, or we can use the money to build really strong, healthy communities.”
“Come April 1, 2014, we are going to be down even more because that's when the major cut kicks in,” said Nepinak. “We have to figure out operating budgets within the very limited resources we are going to have.”
Nepinak is in power until July 2014, when the AMC holds elections for grand chief.