This December, native leaders from across the country will gather in Winnipeg to elect a new national chief for the Assembly of First Nations. The winner will replace Shawn Atleo, who resigned last May, under pressure from a group of chiefs who opposed his support of federal reforms aimed at fixing the abysmal state of native education. The job of national chief is high-profile and comes with enormous pressure. And, as the circumstances of Mr. Atleo’s sudden departure and its aftermath perfectly illustrate, the big title comes with very little real power.
There was nothing wrong with Bill C-33, which Mr. Atleo and Ottawa championed. It would have gone a long way toward providing more stable and substantial funding for on-reserve schools, which could have brightened prospects for native youth. Nor was there anything wrong with Mr. Atleo himself. The 47-year-old, university-educated hereditary chief from Vancouver Island was exactly the kind of person the AFN needed. He is cool-headed, has his ear to the ground and, unlike some of his predecessors, was willing to work with both Ottawa and business to tackle some of the most intransigent problems plaguing his people: soaring high-school dropout rates, stubborn poverty and rampant unemployment.
His resignation is a symptom of a deep and serious problem: the inherent dysfunction of the AFN itself. It is broken; its structure, modelled after the UN General Assembly, renders it irrelevant. The national chief is a lot like the UN’s secretary-general – he has a bully pulpit but power rests with the organization’s member states. More than new elections or a new leader, the AFN needs to ask itself tough questions about how it might better serve the interests of registered or status Indians.
Right now, the AFN serves the interests of 634 member chiefs. They are the only ones who vote for the national chief. He isn’t the democratically elected leader of a people – or even a group of peoples. He’s the emissary of the chiefs. And that means the AFN isn’t a political organization. It’s a lobby group – highly bureaucratic and funded by Ottawa. The role of the national chief is a study in contradictions. According to the AFN’s Charter: “The National Chief shall have no inherent political authority,” yet has “a political role and is the primary spokesperson of the Assembly of First Nations.”
The debacle of the dead-in-the-water First Nations Control of First Nations Education Act shows the impossibility any national chief finds himself in. Mr. Atleo was elected not once, but twice, with a mandate to fix on-reserve schools. He bargained hard and in good faith with Ottawa to secure funding provisions that had been left out of early drafts of Bill C-33. He thought he had the full backing of the chiefs, and he did – until he didn’t. He couldn’t hold the deal together, and Bill C-33 was put on ice. The chiefs’ fickleness is partly to blame, but the AFN’s structure gave Mr. Atleo no authority to check it. Ottawa is not blameless either. The feds thought they had a negotiating partner; they should have known he was only a secretary-general. Mr. Atleo, humiliated, had no choice but to resign.
Travel back in time to when the organization was first formed, to replace the National Indian Brotherhood. Band council chiefs were at odds with regional leaders. It was impossible for 634 band councils to negotiate with Ottawa. Why not create an organization that would be “the one and only voice of Indian People in Canada”? In 1982, the AFN was born.
Problems were apparent from the start: “The Chiefs in Assembly will have some tough decisions to make if they want a strengthened and more effective organization of individual First Nations as opposed to an organization of organizations.” Those were the words of Ernie Benedict, chairman of a commission the AFN created in 1983 to address its structural issues. Its recommendations essentially went nowhere. So have subsequent efforts over the past 30 years. That’s because the chiefs who control the AFN have a vested interest in maintaining their power by upholding the status quo.
On the upside, there is hardly a lack of ideas of how to change. One is to allow all aboriginal people to vote in AFN elections, not just chiefs. The goal would be to empower the people to decide who can best lobby for them. The national chief would have a strong mandate and be accountable to hundreds of thousands of aboriginal voters, not just the chiefs.
Another thought would be to splinter the AFN into smaller groups, more closely aligned with First Nations instead of band councils. Regionalized lobby groups would have greater legitimacy to speak to the needs of their people.
Some want to do away with the AFN altogether, abandoning the idea of a lobby group in favour of a protest movement, building on Idle No More. This concept comes from a sense of frustration that the AFN’s executive has grown too cozy with Ottawa, and too reliant on funding.
But a pure protest movement would have little clout at a time when First Nations are actually well positioned to make some real strides. Yes, there is unresolved work around First Nations education, among other things. But there is also a landmark Supreme Court of Canada decision that has clarified crucial First Nations economic rights over territories that are the subject of unresolved land claims. Companies are under pressure to “engage with aboriginal groups.” Governments too. They need a credible national organization to engage with. Right now, the AFN doesn’t cut it.
After their recent meeting in Halifax, the chiefs, to their credit, recognized that AFN’s structure needed review.
That has to mean real change. Without meaningful reform, the AFN will continue its slide into irrelevance.