Derek Nepinak, the Grand Chief of Manitoba, is in effect threatening to confuse the lines of communications between the government of Canada and the country’s First Nations, by his proposal to establish a new National Treaty Alliance, to replace the Assembly of First Nations. This week, a conference called a National Treaty Gathering is being held at Onion Lake, Sask., to such an end – the AFN is holding its own general assembly in Whitehorse from Wednesday to Friday. This looks like the beginning of a schism, inducing many aboriginal leaders to choose between the two events.
Shawn Atleo, the National Chief of the AFN, does not regard himself as the holder of prime ministerial or powers; rather, he is the representative of the chiefs who elected him. Grand Chief Nepinak may see fit in due course to oppose Mr. Atleo’s re-election, and in the meantime to urge him to change his approach. His complaint that Mr. Atleo is trying to negotiate “behind closed doors” is misplaced; it would make little sense to negotiate about the application and interpretation of treaty rights on live television.
Mr. Nepinak’s argument that the parties to the treaties, not the AFN, should be negotiating with the federal government, almost comes down to a distinction without a difference. The AFN, after all, is the association of the aboriginal parties to those same treaties. The Crown gathering of January, 2012, showed some success in engaging directly with Prime Minister Stephen Harper. The way forward is to find a comprehensive approach that also accommodates particular circumstances. Grand Chief Nepinak’s alternative seems doomed to divide the First Nations communities, and to scatter the attention of the federal government.