Fix AFN before Trying to Create Alternative Body

Commentary, Aboriginal Futures, Joseph Quesnel

Grand Chief Derek Nepinak of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs has stated the time is right to create a new alternative to the Assembly of First Nations (AFN), the main organization representing on-reserve First Nations in Canada.

The new organization, he said, would replace the AFN in treaty negotiations and would forego federal government funding.

While foregoing federal funding sounds like an interesting proposal allowing for a more independent voice in First Nations politics, the vision for the new organization is not as clear as it sounds.

First of all, what led to the calls for the new organization? It is quite apparent from recent events that the calls stem from great dissatisfaction with Shawn Atleo, national chief of the AFN.

If one recalls, chiefs from Ontario, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan were quite upset that Atleo decided to attend a meeting last January with Stephen Harper. Prior to that, many were concerned that Atleo had supported a national panel on Aboriginal education. Moreover, many chiefs were upset about Atleo's decision to sign a joint statement coming from the Crown-First Nations Gathering. Many observers feel that the opposition comes from places like Manitoba where historic treaties were signed. Those opposing Atleo simply do not trust a national chief from British Columbia. They believe he cannot understand or reflect the concerns of historic First Nations.

There are also those who claimed Atleo was too close to the government, or worse, supported some assimilationist agenda. But why, dare one asks, is working with the government so wrong? Are his opponents willing to create a new organization to oppose Atleo?

So the matter really is about what led to dissatisfaction with the AFN and its current leader in the first place. Are those concerns justified? Can they be solved by creating a new organization or can the existing organization be changed and salvaged?

Perhaps those questions need to be answered before embarking on this project.

British Columbia is the most well represented province within the AFN. They have many reserves, but the communities are often quite small. But perhaps the system rewarding absolute number of First Nations over size of the reserves needs to change. But that would open up a whole host of conflicts within First Nations communities.

Also, creating an organization with more weight from Ontario and the Prairies to counter the AFN may only increase problems between First Nations across the country and prevent the forming of a unified voice in dealing with government.

The other issue is the ability of the AFN leader to actually lead. The AFN Charter actually states that the national chief takes direction from the chiefs. He or she has no independent power. But, does that need to change? Or, should the national chief continue as head waiter to the chiefs? Perhaps the current system is not allowing for potential transformative change between the government and First Nations.

The last issue concerns grassroots involvement. Back in 2005, the AFN's own renewal commission recommended direct election of the national chief, instead of through a vote by the 630 plus chiefs. Perhaps the AFN could use some combination of popular election and representation by chiefs, but this central issue has not been resolved.

What guarantee is there that a new treaty organization would resolve this tension? Would they just be creating another chief-dominated organization?

There are too many unresolved issues within the AFN before embarking on the establishment of a whole new organization.