It truly is a sad day when a sitting national chief of the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) feels he must resign from his position.
This brings an end to the career of a national chief who has distinguished himself as being diplomatic and conciliatory in his approach to government.
Clearly, the resignation of Shawn Atleo represents the triumph of the politics of confrontation over conciliation within the First Nations world. His resignation came after many First Nations leaders opposed his support for the First Nations Control of First Nations Education Act, a piece of legislation introduced recently in the House of Commons after much negotiation between the AFN and the government. The bill was supported by Atleo only after it included an assurance of funding and more First Nations control over First Nations education.
From the beginning, Atleo was willing to work with the sitting government on the issue of Aboriginal education and on other issues. In some activist circles, that was verboten. Working with the government – especially a Conservative one – was seen as being co-opted and “assimilationist”. Atleo was criticized for working with a federal panel that went across the country seeking solutions to First Nations education. He was also attacked when he signed a statement at the historic Crown-First Nations Gathering held in January 2012.
At the time of publication, the federal government had announced that they were putting Bill C-33, the First Nations Control of First Nations Education Act, on hold. This may mean the end of the bill, depending on how things go. Some are worried that this hold puts the $1.9 billion in additional education funding in jeopardy.
Perhaps the time has come to grant the AFN national chief some independent authority so that he or she could make deals with the federal government. It might be time that the national chief stop acting as head waiter to the chiefs. Article 21 of the AFN Charter directly states that “the national chief shall have no inherent political authority,” and any authority that he may occasionally have is only granted by the AFN chiefs. But, why can the national chief not negotiate with the federal government and arrive at settlements?
While we are discussing the role of the national chief, it might also be that now is the time to discuss the democratization of the AFN’s leadership selection processes. The AFN’s own renewal commission in 2005 recommended a direct election of the national chief. Although there is no poll showing opinions on the selection of the national chief, some polls have asked average members about their opinion on selection of grand chiefs in provinces, which are chosen in the much same way as the AFN – by chiefs. In a past survey of First Nations conducted in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta, a whopping 74 per cent of respondents stated they prefer everyone voting to elect their grand chiefs, rather than having them elected by their chiefs. In total, there were 1,086 respondents to the question.
In the survey, First Nations were asked: “Currently, the position of grand chief or other regional First Nation leaders is chosen by a vote among the chiefs. Do you believe that allowing all band members to vote for such positions would improve Native governance and give the people a stronger voice?”
So, clearly there is a hunger for more democracy in Indian Country. The post-Atleo AFN landscape may be the perfect time to discuss these issues.
Whatever happens, what’s clear is the next national chief should adopt a conciliatory approach towards the federal government. That is how things are done. He or she must be willing to compromise on select issues. This means the AFN should avoid choosing a confrontational candidate such as someone like a Derek Nepinak of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs or a Pam Palmater, the runner-up in the recent AFN leadership race.
Conciliation, negotiation and compromise may be dirty words among some of the hardline chiefs or activists, but they are political virtues nonetheless.