Five Modest Proposals for a New AFN Chief

Aboriginal Futures, Commentary, Joseph Quesnel

The Assembly of First Nations (AFN) will be at a crossroads as they hold their annual meeting in Calgary this week and let’s not kid ourselves: the AFN has an impact. Useful legislation has been either killed or watered-down “thanks” to AFN intervention; think of the Liberal’s proposed First Nation Governance Act, or a more recent bill from the Tories that would grant civil rights for on-reserve First Nations women. Much of that AFN direction comes from Chief of the organization. And this week, the AFN will select a new leader in Calgary who might improve the lives of all First Nations—might, if they depart from the direction given the AFN by Phil Fontaine.

The eventual winner of this race must adopt reforms to put First Nations first and here is a list of reforms a prospective new national chief should consider:

First, honestly deal with accountability issues.

Stop pretending these issues do not exist. It is insane to ignore the voices of the people at the bottom who witness a lack of accountability and transparency in Indian Country. One candidate for national chief, on his campaign website, said that, “First Nations leadership has been challenged by unfounded assertions of lack of accountability and integrity.”

Unfounded? A simple look at complaints filed every year with Indian Affairs is evidence of how this gentleman’s campaign statement ignores the problem. Also, along with my colleagues, I help conduct our annual First Nation Governance Act which is an on-the-ground survey of indigenous people in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta on governance issues.

Across all provinces, we found close to half of all respondents reported favours and payments were exchanged for votes.

Also, about 74 per cent of respondents said members of the chief’s family disproportionately receive jobs in the community. About 30 per cent were aware of people removed from the community for political reasons through a band council resolution. Another finding from our survey was that 62 per cent of respondents said they “do not really” or “never” receive access to the band’s business plan or financial statements.

For the winning candidate, these challenges must be addressed. Governance problems are driving indigenous young people off the reserve, so it is in the national chief’s best interests to tackle them.

Second, highlight progressive models for First Nations.

There are plenty of good stories happening in “Indian country” and plenty of First Nation band governments that do the right thing. These stories need to be told and the AFN has the resources to get the word out. The 2003 Harvard Project on Native American Economic Development highlighted the components of what defined good indigenous government, such as policies separating politics from business decisions. First Nations like Siksika Nation near Calgary already do that. For example, they aim to purge politics out of service delivery. Also, tough love proponents like B.C. chief Clarence Louie and indigenous author Calvin Helin must be promoted by the AFN as models for avoiding the government dependency trap.

Third, recognize the central role of private property and the private sector in promoting indigenous prosperity.

The Berlin Wall feel 20 years ago and command economies have been discredited. First Nations need realistic solutions, not pie-in-the-sky idealism about communal living. The AFN is uniquely positioned to promote private property rights within First Nations, which would allow First Nations members to secure loans and build businesses-a useful step towards self-reliance. The lack of opportunity on reserves drives out-migration. The Nisga’a of British Columbia are trailblazers in their current proposal to provide transferable residential property for citizens. Indigenous people must work with the private sector. Preventing development on traditional territories may look bold, but it traps communities in poverty.

Fourth, lead by example and reform the AFN.

First Nations need to have confidence in the Assembly of First Nations given it claims to represent them. In 2005, the AFN’s Renewal Commission released a report calling for drastic reforms to the group. Among dozens of recommendations, the Commission called for a one-member, one-vote system for the national chief.

Fifth, stop playing politics and instead oppose oppression.

Time and again, the Assembly of First Nations stalled major initiatives that would have improved the lives of indigenous peoples: The axing the First Nation Governance Act in 2003 allowed electoral fraud and corruption in band elections to continue; the AFN’s call for a three-year period before human rights legislation can be mandated for reserve governments (and to insist on a collective rights clause) exposed indigenous people to further oppression; recent calls to pull legislation that grants equal matrimonial property for First Nation women was also counter-productive—it leaves women more vulnerable.

In short, the AFN and its new leader must stop using self-government rhetoric every time the government proposes ways to improve the lives of First Nations.