The Assembly of First Nations (AFN) has selected a new national chief.
Perry Bellegarde, recently chief of the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations and former chief of the Little Black Bear First Nation in Saskatchewan, will have three-and-a-half years to transform Indigenous politics for the better.
At no other point in its history has the AFN’s legitimacy been as challenged as it is now.
This past July, First Nations chiefs held two very different meetings. While the AFN held its annual general meeting in Whitehorse, Indigenous leaders met in Saskatchewan to debate whether to create an alternative to the AFN.
The AFN is currently in crisis given that the former national chief, Shawn Atleo, resigned before the end of his term. Atleo resigned because the chiefs felt he was too independent for their liking and too close to the sitting Conservative government.
Bellegarde will face immediate challenges when he assumes the office of national chief.
The first step may be in convincing the chiefs to allow him more independent political authority to deal with those challenges.
The first challenge is in the area of education. Chiefs across Canada are calling on the government to pull its proposed Bill C-33, the First Nations Control of First Nations Education Act. They want the money for schools that came with the legislation but don’t want to reform the education system. The legislation would create enforceable education standards for on-reserve schools and would pump $1.9 billion in additional funds for Aboriginal education. Rather than heed these voices calling for the trashing of Bill C-33, Bellegarde should encourage the AFN to move forward on education reform. Bellegarde, like Atleo before him, is being presented with an historic opportunity to improve education on reserves. Bellegarde should state clearly to the chiefs that financial injection must come with meaningful change.
Bellegarde will also face issues related to First Nations transparency. The Canadian government is not backing down on the enforcement of its First Nations Financial Transparency Act, a piece of legislation requiring First Nations to post audited financial statements and salaries of chiefs and councilors on a public website. The government is taking six First Nations to court to force them to comply with the law. It has also stated it will withhold non-essential funding from about 50 others that missed the deadline for disclosure. Rather than continue to fight this law, Bellegarde should encourage all chiefs to accept it.
First Nations need to understand how transparency is positive for their communities. Bellegarde should encourage Indigenous leaders to heed the words of Darcy Bear, Chief of the Whitecap Dakota First Nation in Saskatchewan when he stated: “This bill will mean more accountability of First Nation leaders to our people…Transparent and accountable First Nation governments support a strong environment for investment leading to greater economic development”.
Beyond these two areas, Bellegarde has an unprecedented opportunity to encourage the AFN to change course in a variety of key areas. First, he should promote urban reserves as the next wave in Aboriginal economic development; second, he should support a proposed First Nations Property Ownership Act, which will allow Indigenous communities to become self-sufficient; third, he should encourage First Nations to become partners in resource development, rather than opponents; and fourth, he should allow the AFN to work with the federal government on common areas, especially where fundamental justice is on the line. The AFN should have worked more closely in the past on issues such as matrimonial property rights and First Nations water legislation. Instead, the AFN opposed federal legislation. Perhaps if Bellegarde worked closely with the federal government, there would be movement on the missing and murdered Indigenous women file. Bellegarde should not be viewed as a “sell-out” as Atleo was for working with the government.
Bellegarde must also tackle the issue of the democratization of the AFN. One thing that Idle No More taught us is that grassroots First Nations are not satisfied sitting on the sidelines while chiefs make all the decisions. Bellegarde will have to work hard to include the grassroots in the AFN. That is one way to salvage the organization’s legitimacy.
Bellegarde will have to face some formidable challenges over the next while. Let’s hope he makes the right decisions.