National chief election means nothing to those struggling in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside

“The AFN doesn’t do anything for the people. It has no real value.”

VANCOUVER – Robert Williams drumming reflects off his people in the heart of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.

Each beat sings the song of their spirit.

“This is the last stop for people who have nowhere to go,” says Williams, 29, Monday morning of an area that stretches a few city blocks and known for its in-your-face poverty and drug addiction at Main and Hastings streets.

“Most people here are products of residential schools.”

It’s about a kilometre from the Vancouver Convention Centre – a ritzy location by the water’s edge where people walk around with Gucci purses and drive high-end cars.

It’s also where chiefs are gathering to elect a national chief for the Assembly of First Nations.

But for Williams it may as well be a million kilometres away.

APTN News asked him what the AFN means to him and its election.

He said it’s hard to accept thousands of dollars will be spent on an election while people around him struggle.

“The AFN doesn’t do anything for the people. It has no real value,” says Williams. “Big honorariums. Travel. Big meetings about nothing where nothing gets done. Basically just hired actors to fulfill a big play.”

Just to enter the assembly is hundreds of dollars – something no one here can afford when they are bumming single cigarettes from a lady everyone calls “Momma”.

One guy offers to trade an orange for a cigarette but she just gives him one. Another guy is livid his bike was stolen.

“That’s the second time that his bike was stolen,” says Momma, whose real name is Marcella Jacob, 54.

Marcella ‘Momma’ Jacob in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.

Jacob doesn’t just help people out with a loosey – she helps direct them to where they can find treatment or get an identification card.

She should know as she used to work at a local shelter for Indigenous people until she lost her job and became homeless herself.

That was three years ago and just recently she got a place to live.

But she keeps coming to Hastings street.

“I’m a people person. I have lots of love for everybody down here,” she says. “A lot of our people are crying out for help.”

When the AFN comes up in conversation she sort of gives a look of “who?” She knows about the AFN but she says the AFN doesn’t know her.

“They don’t do nothing for us,” she says.

Another longtime resident of the area compared the AFN to a story he once heard about an elder that attended a meeting with chiefs.

“Lots of clouds, lots of thunder, lots of lightening but no rain and that’s what we’re always promised,” said Pakaygun, 63, a Cree man.

“It’s a beautiful show but where’s the rain? Where’s the substance that’s going to help us really get out of this?”

The AFN is another part of colonization he said.

“So what do I think of our national leadership? I don’t know what they do except play politics,” said Pakaygun, which means pounding rock.

Williams agrees.

“They just want their picture taken and look good,” he said. “As soon as you’re obsessed with yourself you are not obsessed about your people.”

The first ballot opens Wednesday morning.

As it does those in Downtown Eastside can expect to hear Williams’ drum.

Producer Nation to Nation - Ottawa

Kenneth is a journalist with nearly two decades of reporting experience who focuses on crime and social issues, including child welfare and wrongful convictions. He has worked out of APTN’s Ottawa bureau since October 2012.


16 thoughts on “National chief election means nothing to those struggling in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside

  1. those chiefs need to represent themselves to be strong against the Pipelines…. not give in to the prime minister so easily…

  2. those chiefs need to represent themselves to be strong against the Pipelines…. not give in to the prime minister so easily…

  3. It is sad that those who voted for the individual who is elected chief on their reserve gets to attend the AFN annual assembly, which I assume is paid fully by the band they represent, free of charge and the people who got them there have to pay $350.00 to get in the door. I guess they don’t want their membership to see how their elected official wastes the bands money to attend because they are the chief when really they go because its a free holiday compliments of the bands money. A responsible leader puts the needs of his people first before the needs of themself!

  4. It is sad that those who voted for the individual who is elected chief on their reserve gets to attend the AFN annual assembly, which I assume is paid fully by the band they represent, free of charge and the people who got them there have to pay $350.00 to get in the door. I guess they don’t want their membership to see how their elected official wastes the bands money to attend because they are the chief when really they go because its a free holiday compliments of the bands money. A responsible leader puts the needs of his people first before the needs of themself!

  5. It is a sad state of affairs when we blindly follow colonialistic values of “divide and conquer” and playing one on the other so that there is no unity remaining! Not too long ago there was One Strong Voice which combined 62 communities…Manitoba Indian Brotherhood. What happened to that? Gov’t saw the energy created with unity. Gov’t silenced the voice by dividing the numbers into SCO, MKO and all the others to fight for meager funding. Gather as ONE again…to end the infighting and make a difference for the sake of the children!

  6. It is a sad state of affairs when we blindly follow colonialistic values of “divide and conquer” and playing one on the other so that there is no unity remaining! Not too long ago there was One Strong Voice which combined 62 communities…Manitoba Indian Brotherhood. What happened to that? Gov’t saw the energy created with unity. Gov’t silenced the voice by dividing the numbers into SCO, MKO and all the others to fight for meager funding. Gather as ONE again…to end the infighting and make a difference for the sake of the children!

  7. It begs the questions ‘What is a grand chief? -On my rez (lax kw’alaams) we have a mayor- how does a grand chief affect me, my rez, my family, their wellness/security, why shoild i care?

  8. In my life, I’ve met a prime Minister, the premier of BC, my MP of South Surrey, all on the street and on the bus. And I gave them an earful. But the only Indigenous leader I’ve ever met was Phillip Stewart (at a march, and who often gets himself arrested on behalf of First Nation issues). I’ve never even met the chief of my reserve! Today, we have a plethora of Indigenous demonstrations across the country; camps in Regina, Winnipeg, Burnaby, Calgary. Just like the AFN was totally out to lunch during 2012/13 Idle No More, they are still profoundly OUT OF TOUCH with the Indigenous grassroots people and concerns in 2018. But they look good on TV and have awesome-sounding press releases.

    1. yes. god bless their hearts… momma and the drummer boy….. <3 thank
      you for being open and letting others know the truth <3

  9. It begs the questions ‘What is a grand chief? -On my rez (lax kw’alaams) we have a mayor- how does a grand chief affect me, my rez, my family, their wellness/security, why shoild i care?

  10. In my life, I’ve met a prime Minister, the premier of BC, my MP of South Surrey, all on the street and on the bus. And I gave them an earful. But the only Indigenous leader I’ve ever met was Phillip Stewart (at a march, and who often gets himself arrested on behalf of First Nation issues). I’ve never even met the chief of my reserve! Today, we have a plethora of Indigenous demonstrations across the country; camps in Regina, Winnipeg, Burnaby, Calgary. Just like the AFN was totally out to lunch during 2012/13 Idle No More, they are still profoundly OUT OF TOUCH with the Indigenous grassroots people and concerns in 2018. But they look good on TV and have awesome-sounding press releases.

    1. yes. god bless their hearts… momma and the drummer boy….. <3 thank
      you for being open and letting others know the truth <3

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