For Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak (MKO) Grand Chief Garrison Settee, who was elected to lead the advocacy organization for Northern Manitoba First Nations in August, it isn’t enough for him to be from the north – he has to be in the north too.
“The grand chief should be present in the north so that the people know that their leader lives with them and among them,” he said in an Oct. 2 interview. “I’ve set up residence in Thompson, Manitoba because I believe that I need to be here so that the people can see me in the community.”
This isn’t Settee’s first foray into politics, as he served from 2008 to 2013 as chief of Pimicikamak Cree Nation, where he grew up.
“I grew up with 10 siblings and I was the only one of my family that ventured out of the community and went and obtained a university degree,“ Settee said. “I became a teacher and eventually went back to teach in my First Nation. Students started to ask me to run for chief and after eight years of prodding and probing, I became chief of my community mostly because of the elders that asked me to run.”
That position did not end of his own accord.
“I ran again and I came short by some votes but then it’s something that I accepted,” he recalls. “I said, ‘Fine, now I have my life back.’ I can go back to do what I want to do on my own time and my own schedule.”
He spent the intervening years between his current and former stints in elected office in the classroom.
“Teaching’s the most rewarding career anyone can ever have because of the influence that you have on impressionable young people,” Settee said. “My mission was to at least inspire them to move beyond the status quo, to move beyond than what they see. I used to say there’s a big world out there, there’s much to see but you can only get there if you have an education. I tell these stories to motivate them to move away from poverty and also the codependency that exists. Most of them depend on welfare as their income. A single person gets at least $3,400 per year. That’s not a way to exist, so education empowers you and liberates you, emancipates you from that kind of life.”
Settee decided to return to politics because of the disconnect he saw between MKO and the people it represents.
“The connection of the organization with the grassroots people was almost non-existent and that didn’t sit well with me because the grassroots people ultimately live that day-to-day existence of a lot of needs and concerns,” he said.
When he took that message to the chiefs and councillors who actually vote for the grand chief, they were receptive, he says.
“I was given assurance and given the support verbally that gave me an indication that this was going to go very well but I didn’t want to be overconfident. I never wanted to take it for granted for one moment so I kept just engaging and talking with different leaders.”
Now that he’s grand chief, Settee says there are many areas in which he wants MKO to have an impact.
“There’s a lot of things that have to do with justice and we’re addressing them,” he says, while the impact of hydroelectric development on northern Indigenous people is also an area of focus. “[We’ll be] reaching out to the province, reaching out to Manitoba Hydro and reaching out to all the people involved and saying, ‘How can we change this?’ Education initiatives are very important to us so we’ll be monitoring how far we get on those and, of course, housing and health. There’s been funding allocated for the north. Once we start establishing programs and even setting up facilities with the health money to better service our people, I think it’s going to indicate that we’ve actually done something and hopefully we can do that in a short period of time.”
He would also like to have discussions with Island Lake area First Nations who announced last summer that they were leaving MKO.
“Reaching out to them is the first step,” said the grand chief. “I’m more than willing to do that and also try to hopefully bring them back to the organization and assure them whatever issues caused them to leave the organization will be dealt with. I think that it is possible and I think it’ll happen – not immediately, but it’ll happen.”
Settee says he’s already made the biggest step in restoring the connection between MKO and its constituents.
“The most important decision I’ve made as a grand chief so far is setting up residence here in Thompson. I will be in the north as much as possible and engaging not only the City of Thompson but outlying communities that I’m here and I’m ready to work with them and move all the issues that we have in the north even further and also providing the voice that is needed to make sure there’s changes in the north. My desire is that the north be represented adequately and that the voice for the north is strong and very clear as to what we want for our people.”