Turmoil at the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) should lead to Reform

Commentary, Aboriginal Futures, Joseph Quesnel

The AFN claims to speak for First Nations in Canada. But serious problems started with allegations about the new National Chief RoseAnne Archibald.

Earlier this year, Archibald was subjected to complaints by her staff, alleging harassment and a toxic workplace. Responding to these allegations, the AFN’s executive committee suspended Archibald in late June. In response, she said she was suspended for attempting to investigate internal corruption and she called for a forensic audit of the organization. More recently, at an AFN general assembly in Vancouver, the chiefs restored Archibald and removed the vote of non-confidence. They also called for probes into the alleged “climate of toxicity and bullying,” and called for a 10-year forensic audit of the AFN’s finances.

Internal problems, however, are not new to the AFN.

Former AFN National Chief Perry Bellegarde left the position amidst scandal. At that time, allegations of financial impropriety were also alleged. The AFN faced calls from within the organization for an arm’s length audit over violations of conflict-of-interest policies, especially in the awarding of contracts.

These allegations going back several years speak to deeper organizational problems.  As defined by its charter, the AFN is a lobby group. Although it functions as a representative organization, it is in the final analysis only a lobby group.

As such, the national chief is the face of the organization, but the real power resides with the chiefs of the 635 First Nations. The national chief is only the spokesperson for these chiefs. Former National Chief Shawn Atleo learned this the hard way when he tried to work with Prime Minister Stephen Harper on introducing important education reforms. He was blocked by the regional chiefs. So, the national chief has no independent power to work with governments or other partners.

The AFN needs a remedy by doing two things. It needs to enact reforms that resemble those things that need to be done for many First Nation governments because often the problems are similar – lack of democracy and financial dependence on Ottawa.

On democratization, the AFN is dominated by First Nation chiefs who ultimately have a final say in that organization. This can be good or bad, but the politicization created by an “old chiefs’ network” which is full of nepotism and impropriety can be a real problem, and the agenda of the organization is dominated by the political issues of the 635 chiefs. As a result, accountability and governance reform have often been pushed aside.

Over the years, the problems with the AFN were criticized, and some national chiefs toyed with the idea of extending the franchise to all First Nations in selecting the national chief instead of just the regional chiefs. Although the AFN has introduced new voices and reforms at the margins, the organization is still dominated by the chiefs.

Ultimately, the AFN’s membership must decide how they will democratize, whether a general vote for all chiefs or some other reforms, but it must happen. The sooner the better too. With more popular involvement, the shenanigans of the “network of old chiefs” will be exposed as a corrupting force. This force needs to be eliminated.

The second aspect is more far reaching and certain to raise controversy, but it needs to be said for the sake of advancing First Nation communities and the AFN as a lobby organization. The AFN – like Indigenous communities themselves– must strive to be financially independent rather than relying on allocations from Canadian taxpayers.

At present, the AFN receives most of its financial support from the federal government. This – like all forms of dependence – is a trap for First Nations. Prominent Indigenous activists – such as BC Indigenous businessman Calvin Helin – have pointed out how it is always easy to make bad decisions when monies are grants from governments. Very simply, the AFN does not think it needs to be accountable to the governments who provide its financial resources. Of course, this also happens to band governments that are dependent on federal funds and not on economic activities on their reserve lands.

If the AFN was financed by First Nation communities, both the AFN and its beneficiaries would be in better place for greater accountability. Being financed by Ottawa creates conflict of interest for both the AFN and the national chief. They are often accused of playing the government’s tune as happened to Shawn Atleo. The problem for the AFN is the same as that of media organizations that also receive government bailout. They will always be under suspicion because of the way they are funded.

A forensic audit and an investigation of workplace behaviour is a great policy initiative for RoseAnne Archibald to pursue, but the AFN and all First Nation communities need to look much deeper at funding themselves. The AFN – like Indigenous communities – needs to democratize and become more self-sufficient to become truly reformed. They need this reform to be treated more fairly by governments.

 

Joseph Quesnel is a senior research associate with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy. www.fcpp.org