The AFN Needs Fresh Thinking

Media Appearances, Aboriginal Futures, Frontier Centre

This week, delegates from around the country are gathered in Calgary to elect a new Grand Chief of the Assembly of First Nations (AFN). The winner will replace Phil Fontaine, who is stepping down after a dozen years.

Let’s hope they choose someone with new ideas. Mr. Fontaine’s approach and proposals were all strictly old school.

Whatever the problem facing Canada’s natives, Mr. Fontaine knew only one cause — whites — and only one solution — taxpayers’ money. Thus, last year he extracted an apology for residential schools from the current Tory government, even though the schools did no more harm to aboriginal culture than corruption and mismanagement by band councillors over the years. And in 2005, he managed to negotiate the $5-billion Kelowna Accord with the Liberals, the money from which was hailed as a panacea but which would have disappeared without tangible results — the fate of all such huge giveaways. (When the Conservatives came to power, the accord was shelved.)

Mr. Fontaine may have been a charmer and possessed modern media savvy. Still, these skills masked a same-old, same-old philosophy on aboriginal-Ottawa affairs.

He blocked every attempt to increase accountability and transparency in First Nations government. He frowned on the establishment of personal property rights on reserves that would have encouraged home ownership and business start-ups. He even helped convince federal opposition parties to block legislation giving on-reserve women full legal and human rights, arguing that such changes — if they came at all — had to come slowly, so as not to upset aboriginal traditions.

Whoever replaces Mr. Fontaine has to stop living in the past. Playing the blame game will do nothing to lift aboriginal Canadians out of poverty and despair, nor will clinging to the belief that the only thing separating natives from the Canadian economic mainstream is a few trainloads of taxpayer cash.

The new AFN chief himself will not even be elected by a one-member/ one-vote system among all of Canada’s First Nations people — another reform Mr. Fontaine resisted. His successor will be elected like an old-style political boss: by delegates, many of the ex officio, who may well likely choose the candidate best able to preserve their power and prestige within their own communities.

Consider how different local politics would be if your mayor, rather than being chosen in a city-wide ballot by all eligible voters, was selected by the councillors only, many of whom themselves were not elected to office. Instead of being accountable to you, His Worship would soon answer mostly to those who buttered his bread.

There is nothing inherent in aboriginal culture that makes First Nations politics dysfunctional. The Frontier Centre for Public Policy (FCPP) in Winnipeg just completed its third annual survey of governance on prairie reserves. Although it uncovered a lot of ineptitude and manipulation — 74% of respondents said the chief’s family received preference in hiring for band jobs, 62% said they had never seen a proper accounting of band spending and 30% claimed to know reserve residents who had been forced by a council motion to move away because of their politics — the survey found many examples of exceptionally good reserve governance.

The O’Chiese First Nation, in the Alberta foothills, just north and west of Rocky Mountain House, has separated its political and business affairs with great success. No longer does the band council make individual contract awards or hiring decisions. Rather, it supervises the professional managers who do so, and holds itself accountable to electors for the direction it gives the managers.

In other words, O’Chiese and other successful First Nations have, more or less, adopted the governance model of successful non-aboriginal municipalities, rather than holding fast to the political fantasy that their tiny populations are viable “nations,” and that their path to success lies in their chief and his fellows badgering Ottawa for more and more billions through the AFN.

All five candidates to replace Mr. Fontaine have proclaimed that economic development is the course their people must follow if they are eventually to rise economically to the level of the Canadian mainstream.

That’s all well and good. But unless the winner means to break the cycle of dependence both individual aboriginals and their bands have on federal handouts (nearly $8-billion a year divided among fewer than one million aboriginals), abandon collective ownership of reserve property, implement strict rules for on-reserve accounting and end cronyism and nepotism, then four or eight years from now, when the next national chief is elected, nothing tangible will have changed.