It Is Time For the AFN to Embrace Democracy

Commentary, Aboriginal Futures, Joseph Quesnel

Something is clearly amiss in the First Nations world.

Native chiefs from across Canada are converging in Whitehorse, Yukon, beginning today and until the 18th for the annual general meeting of the Assembly of First Nations (AFN). Meanwhile, some First Nations leaders are also gathering in Saskatchewan to debate whether to create an alternative to the AFN.

Both gatherings offer a perfect opportunity for the chiefs to deal with a key elephant in the room of First Nations politics. First Nations communities need to decide why the AFN needs to exist if they embark on creating an alternative organization.

It is no secret that chiefs dissatisfied with Shawn Atleo’s leadership of the AFN are fueling the movement for an alternative and that this dissatisfaction particularly comes from regions – such as Ontario and the Prairie provinces – that signed historic treaties with the Crown (Also called Numbered Treaties).

First Nations from those regions opposed Atleo when he organized a national panel seeking solutions to Aboriginal education across the country. Many of these same chiefs were also opposed to his working with the federal government at the Crown-First Nations Gathering held in January 2012. Yet that gathering resulted in a historic document committing the government to work on First Nations education, treaty implementation, governance reform, and bold economic development.

Many chiefs see Atleo as acting too independently for their liking.

The Whitehorse AFN meeting needs to tackle directly   whether the national chief should have some independent power or should remain under the chiefs’ thumbs. The AFN’s charter subordinates the chief to the group. In fact, Article 20 specifies that the “national chief has a political role and is the primary spokesperson of the Assembly.”

Article 21 directly further states that “the national chief shall has no inherent political authority,” and any authority the he may occasionally have is only granted by the AFN. A spokesperson is not a leader.

Perhaps it is time to change that, however. Perhaps the national chief should be able to run a bold common program that he or she can actually implement. This may mean he or she would have formal decision-making powers or have the ability to negotiate on behalf of First Nations.

But such a change will have to acknowledge variety and internal decisions. Numbered Treaties’ chiefs oppose Atleo because he is from British Columbia. They believe a British Columbia-based leader cannot understand or appreciate their respective treaty issues because B.C. is only now signing modern treaties.

The problem   is that B.C. has 198 First Nations and each community has one equal vote in selecting the national chief. B.C. represents about one-third of all First Nations in Canada. However, B.C. communities only amount to 18.2 per cent of the total Aboriginal population. It may also be time, therefore, to change the formula for choosing the national chief.

The AFN also needs to resolve the lack of grassroots involvement in selecting the national chief. Back in 2005 the AFN’s own renewal commission recommended a direct grassroots election of the national chief. Having the chiefs dominate the AFN sometimes prevents grassroots concerns from reaching the AFN’s agenda. Issues such as governance reform, accountability, and opposition to nepotism never seem to make it onto the AFN’s radar. It’s time for formal input from the grassroots.

Perhaps it may be time to  introduce some balance by creating an assembly to represent the common First Nations people along with the one representing the chiefs. Perhaps the national chief could be double-selected. Some will view such an arrangement as divisive, but it is natural for divisions to exist among peoples. The more democratic formulas allow for divisions and compromise instead of imposing artificial unity.

A national leader could invigorate greater reform and help uproot the notion many chiefs hold that working with the federal government is somehow represents being co-opted. But past national chief Phil Fontaine produced an historic residential schools apology and settlement by working with Ottawa, not against it.

Atleo has been called a “sell out” and “assimilationist” for leading to the Crown-First Nations Gathering with the federal government and working with Ottawa on Aboriginal education. But why? First Nations’ education as well as similar areas need committed leadership and a co-operative approach that may even have to include provinces as the Indian Act is silent on educational standards.

First Nations need a transformative leader who will work with Ottawa in bringing forward bold economic development and accountable governance. The era of name-calling has only perpetuated the status quo of poverty and powerlessness.

This current general meeting can be productive if chiefs finally challenge the right elephant.