A Man Called Christmas – Lessons Namibia Can Learn

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By Gerson Uaripi Tjihenuna On 26th August 2006, I travelled to Charlotte Town in Prince Edward Island (Canada) to attend the Annual Conference of the Institute of Public Institute of Canada (IPAC). The trip was fully funded by the Canadians as part of a co-operation agreement we have with them. This journey was amusing and perhaps historic in more ways than one. In the first place, I had to pass through London’s Heathrow Airport barely a week after the discovery of the ‘plot’ to blow up TransAtlantic Airlines flying from London to North America. The long flight from Johannesburg to London was quiet except for the fact that after dinner, the waiter accidentally knocked over my cup of coffee, which resulted in the coffee spilling on my trousers, and I should say that it was not particularly funny or comfortable. In the first place, it was the front part of the trousers that was wet and it showed a visible spot; secondly, I had booked my luggage through to Quebec City and the possibility of changing trousers was just not there. Lastly, I had no intention of buying trousers in London. After that ordeal, the waiter responded by saying, in his British English and typical ‘British gentleman’ mannerism: “…I am terribly sorry, Sir!” The worst was still to come. Having arrived at Heathrow Airport, need I say it, we had to perform what a colleague of mine calls ‘strip-dancing’ as we passed through security checkpoints. We had to remove our belts, the shoes and get rid of anything that looked liquid. A lady colleague with whom I had travelled from Johannesburg could not stop complaining about ‘the ordeal’ we were going through, despite the fact that the intention was noble and it was, at the end of the day, for our own good. This lady, who hails from West Africa, could not stop sulking and clapping her hands in West African fashion, complaining that “…dese people, oh, dey took way my axpansive pafume, oh…!” The reason was simply that no liquid was allowed on the flights, especially North American-bound ones and, as far as I could recall, British Airways went out of their way to inform all their passengers well in advance, at least all those who cared to listen. My journey was also historic in the sense that we were just a few days away from the first anniversary of hurricane Katrina which reaped havoc in New Orleans and other surrounding areas in that part of the United States last year. Now Canada, being a neighbour of the U.S., this particular incident dominated the news during my stay there. Perhaps more significantly, we were also a few weeks before the fifth anniversary of 9/11 – an event that has completely changed the history of the world, as we know it. Obviously, that anniversary also dominated TV screens in Canada. Now to come to the story of Christmas…. Many experts took the floor to present papers at the IPAC Annual Conference. However, one particular incident has left a permanent impression on me. On the morning of 28th August 2006, a man in his early Forties took the floor. The title of his paper was ‘Building Local Democracy.’ His dress was casual, his presentation very informal, yet articulate, and he wore a ponytail. His name was Bernd Christmas, the CEO of the Membertou First Nations Band of Nova Scotia. Now let us first clarify some terms. The aboriginal peoples in Canada are referred to as First Nations and, contrary to popular opinion in Namibia and perhaps elsewhere, the aborigines of North America are not one homogeneous group. In Canada alone, there are roughly 360 aboriginal groups and some of them are very different. In my understanding, a band, on the other hand, would be a group of aboriginal people who are closely linked through clan ties and who, more or less, occupy the same area. Most of us who grew up in the Sixties and Seventies would remember the cowboy and crook films or movies that were popular during those days. More often than not, the cowboy or the hero would be white and the ‘crooks’ would be North American ‘Indians’ as they used to be called. They would steal some cattle or get involved in some other mischief and the ‘cowboy’ would confront a large number of ‘crooks’ and beat them or kill them all, almost single-handedly. Much as I do not want to dig up that part of North American history, because digging that up would also result in digging up our own recent history, and that would perhaps not be in the interest of nation-building and national reconciliation. Be that as it may, I just want to mention that just as the image of Africa has been grossly distorted by the Western media, most people around the world also have a distorted image about the North American aboriginal peoples, or First Nations. A great part of that negative image has been imprinted by the ‘cowboy and crook’ movies I have alluded to above. Having had opportunities to visit South Dakota in the United States and parts of Canada, I know that our aboriginal brothers and sisters have been left behind in both those countries and there is a great catching-up to be done. However, not many people outside North America know that quite a few of aborigines have become leading scholars and professionals in their own rights. That is why I have deemed it appropriate to share the story of Christmas and his people. The Mbemertou First Nations Band consists of about 11ÃÆ’Æ‘ÀÃ…ÃÆ”šÃ‚ 000 people and, in terms of the self-government status granted by the Canadian Federal Government to the First Nations in 1971, they have a Chief and eleven Councillors who are elected every two years. In terms of their own democratic set-up they also have, from time to time, General Band meetings where people can raise all sorts of issues. The story of Christmas is interesting because he had a successful law firm in downtown Toronto, Canada’s commercial capital, when the chief of the Mbemertou First Nation Band (from where Chrismas hails) came to ask him about ten years ago whether he did not want to come over to help his people. Without hesitation Christmas closed down his law firm and went down to Nova Scotia to help his people. When he arrived there, the rate of unemployment was about 96% and obviously the crime rate was high. The first thing Christmas did was to register the Mbemertou First Nations Band area as a business corporation, with himself as the Chief Executive and the Band Management Committee as the Board. This corporation is run strictly on business principles and they even have their own website. Both the Federal and the Nova Scotia Provincial Governments as well as the private sector saw this as a viable project, and investments have been pouring in. They have sealed business deals, in the form of joint ventures, with large global players like Boeing and Coca Cola, among others. They now have their own local police force, their own schools, housing projects and also well-developed water systems and, above all, a 100% employment rate compared to 96% unemployment rate ten years back. According to Christmas, anyone who wants to work can find a job. Christmas concluded his presentation by saying that when they deal with the Federal and Provincial Governments, they behave like a government, and when they deal with a private company, they behave like a commercial entity. In other words, they are flexible, fast, up to date with information, good at presenting a positive image to potential partners, they uphold the rule of law, are consistent and reliable, etc. A lot of groups in Canada, especially those representing First Nations interests, have been overwhelming Christmas with questions trying to find out how he and the Mbemertou First Nations Band have managed to “pull it!”