Stephen Kakfwi yearns to be home in Yellowknife to be with his children and grandchildren. He has been on the road for weeks shuttling between meetings and appointments, making new connections and renewing old contacts.
The former premier of the Northwest Territories has a mission. He is attempting to build a new partnership between First Nations and Canadians. He has already recruited senior statesmen, corporate executives, heads of non-profit organizations and church officials to work with indigenous leaders. They will take the next step when the Truth and Reconciliation Commission ends.
Kakfwi did not seek this role. It grew out of a troubling conversation he had with his children two Christmases ago. It was a bleak time for aboriginal youth. Chief Theresa Spence of Attawapiskat was into her fifth week of a hunger strike. No one could persuade Prime Minister Stephen Harper to listen to her or convince her to end her fast. The leadership of the Assembly of First Nations was divided. The Idle no More movement was struggling for legitimacy. “They were disillusioned with our leaders and disheartened about their future,” he recounted. “They asked me to join the protests and marches.”
The 64-year-old residential school survivor told them he was beyond that. What was really needed, he said, was a Nation-to-Nation relationship between aboriginal leaders and their Canadian counterparts based on trust and understanding. “Why don’t you take the initiative?” they asked.
The question preyed on his mind. “I sat in my living room until 5 a.m. staring at the fire and praying.”
He couldn’t afford to fly to Ottawa to speak to Spence. Nor could he negotiate a solution to an impasse 3,000 kilometres away.
On impulse, Kakfwi phoned former prime minister Paul Martin to ask him to intercede. Without hesitation, Martin said yes. Kakfwi made a similar call to former prime minister Joe Clark. His response was identical. “It was uncanny how easy it was to get hold of them and how readily they agreed.”
Next he reached to two former national chiefs of the Assembly of First Nations — Ovide Mercredi and Phil Fontaine — who likewise came aboard. Emboldened, he widened the circle to include a former Supreme Court judge, a former auditor general, a national broadcaster, an internationally renowned conductor and a cross-section of aboriginal leaders.
“As diverse as we are, if we can’t get together and agree on a few things, there’s no hope for this country,” he said.
That is how Canadians for a New Partnership was born.
It became official on Sept. 4, with a public announcement in Ottawa. Kakfwi was flanked by Martin, Clark, Mercredi, Fontaine, former Supreme Court Justice Frank Iacobucci, Mohawk composer and conductor John Kim Bell, CBC host Shelagh Rogers and a selection of highly regarded native chiefs and elders. “We are a partnership of equals pledged to reconcile historic wrongs, committed to mutual respect and dedicated to the eradication of inequities,” Inuit leader Mary Simon said.
The launch was followed by a declaration-signing ceremony. Kakfwi invited all Canadians who share the group’s goals to add their signatures. So far more than 3,000 Canadians have done so.
He has a personal stake in keeping the momentum generated by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission going when its mandate ends next March. His partner, Marie Wilson, is one of its three commissioners. Along with Justice Murray Sinclair and Chief Wilton Littlechild, she has visited 300 communities in the last four years, immersed herself in the pain of 6,500 survivors of Canada’s notorious Indian Residential Schools and their families. She heard harrowing tales of cruelty, abuse and humiliation.
The storytelling process was cathartic, but Kakfwi believes reconciliation means more than that. It means repairing the historic breach between aboriginal and non-aboriginal Canadians and moving forward together.
“Canada has reached a critical turning point,” he says. There is a wellspring of goodwill in the land. There is a new generation of educated aboriginal leaders taking its place. Canadians have acknowledged the darkest chapter in their nation’s history. The prime minister has apologized on their behalf.
He would have preferred to hand off the torch to someone else — someone younger with more energy — but he will carry it for the next lap, using his wisdom, stature and contacts to create a better future for his children and their generation.