Let’s Have Real Elections at the Assembly of First Nations

Commentary, Aboriginal Futures, Joseph Quesnel

Imagine you wanted to be prime minister but rather than run for the leadership of your party and then face a general election, you only needed the support of every mayor in Canada.

This is the situation First Nations people find themselves in vis-à-vis the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations (AFN), the ostensible representative body for on-reserve First Nations. To become the national chief, one needs only to get a enough votes from First Nations chiefs.

This process will again play itself out in July when the AFN “elects” a national chief, this while most First Nation citizens sit on the sideline as their 600 chiefs vote in their place.

The unresponsive and unrepresentative nature of the current system becomes obvious when the differing agendas of national leaders and those on the ground are compared. Most AFN candidates, including incumbent Phil Fontaine, talk about land claims and increased autonomy, but there is a different conversation going on in Indian Country.

I have travelled to dozens of First Nation reserves over the past two years as have some of my colleagues–in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta. As part of our work, we ask band members to complete surveys on community governance. We meet with hundreds of indigenous people; they tell us they are frustrated and they rightly feel disenfranchised.

We hear the angry voices of those dissatisfied with their band administration’s performance. Aboriginal Canadians tell us how they waited years for a home because of political interference from chiefs and councillors; they relay stories of how their child in college or university suddenly had their post-secondary assistance cut off by the band due to local politics.

On one reserve in northern Alberta, a woman was upset we missed her house during our survey. She told me how her band council ensured off-reserve residents were denied the right to vote in band elections.

A comparison between these stories and what is heard from the national Aboriginal leadership reveals a disconnect between the agenda they push and what those on the Aboriginal ground think is important. While the AFN occasionally raises useful issues such as residential school survivors, the AFN and average First Nations members are on different wavelengths. In fact, they might as well be on different planets. Part of the reason for that is how the current system assures the national chief will speak for institutional interests of band chiefs and not the concerns of band members.

That some chiefs may be sincere is not at issue; the system of elections just doesn’t allow for a full democratic airing of concerns or priorities.

For example, this perverse system played out when the First Nations Governance Act was introduced by Jean Chretien’s Liberals in 2003. That legislation would have strengthened First Nations financial accountability and improved band elections. Grassroots support for these changes was widespread as polls showed strong support from average band members.

Things changed when the AFN and band politicians intervened–including Fontaine who opposed the bill. Regrettably, many chiefs had a vested interest in the status quo and were reluctant to open up their books or improve election systems.

The AFN and band politicos wrapped themselves in “self-government” bravado and opposed change. Paul Martin, like most politicians, confused the AFN’s positions and band politics with ground-zero opinion. So the accountability legislation died and the Assembly of First Nations, Fontaine and Martin were back to the money game, proposing billions to “solve” Aboriginal problems as part of the Kelowna Accord.

If grassroots First Nations were given the power to select their national chief, the AFN’s agenda would look different. For starters, candidates would have to appeal to a new constituency—the people. Also, the frustrations from the indigenous Canadians my colleagues and I meet every day could be heard. Sure, some First Nations radicals will come out of the woodwork, but it’s unlikely they would receive the broad popular support needed to win.

While a one-member, one-vote system is ideal, the AFN, as well as other Aboriginal organizations that use chief-only election models could at least experiment. Some provinces have more First Nations people than others, so they could opt for a system that gives different weights to different areas to ensure regional representation.

Either way, ordinary Aboriginal Canadian must be able to choose their leadership. First Nations should reject this outdated undemocratic system and consign it to the dustbin of history.