At the risk of being politically incorrect, there are too many chiefs and not enough Indians in the Assembly of First Nations. When the AFN votes today to elect a new national chief, only 633 voices will count. Those are the voices of the elected chiefs of Canada’s first nations communities. They or their proxies are the only ones who are allowed to vote. To be a first nations person in Canada is to be rendered voiceless by the very organization that purports to represent you.
But every three years, the chiefs meet to elect or re-elect a national leader. This is illusory. What they are electing is an advocate in an assembly of advocates, because the AFN is not a government but rather an advocacy group for the chiefs. For the most part, the concerns and issues of individual first nations people do not play a part in the electoral process.
We are the people for whom treaty implementation, economic development, education, resource management, potable water, mould-free housing and affordable food for our children remain daily concerns. We are the people whom all these issues affect directly. But when the AFN votes, only the chiefs hold sway over the outcome.
Eight candidates are on the ballot today. This is a historic number. What it represents is not so much discontent with the leadership of incumbent Shawn Atleo as with the efficacy of the AFN itself. Four of the candidates are women. Three of those women have never been chiefs of their first nations, nor do they have AFN experience. This says a great deal.
Primarily, it says women, in support of grassroots concerns, want a new order. They want to ensure the security of their children. They want an end to violence against women and children. They seek protection of indigenous identity and for the land that informs it. They want to know that the voice of the people is what guides the process of dealing with government.
This is not to discount the pursuit of resolution to land claims, treaty implementation, health, education or the myriad concerns on the first nations agenda. Rather, it is to augment them with an ear to the realities in communities right now. For first nations women, our indigenous identity, our land and our future never were, and never will be, for sale, barter or diminishment.
Does it mean that first nations people need a female national chief? Not necessarily. But it does point to the need for the AFN to direct thought toward its overall relevance.
For instance, the majority of first nations people live in urban centres, yet there is no mechanism to allow them a voice within the AFN. Similarly, the biggest segments of our populations are youth under 25, both on reserve and off, yet there is no specific youth representation either. Sure, the AFN has policy areas, but nowhere for a direct electoral voice from either demographic.
The AFN as it stands today is not working. That’s what first nations women are saying. Too many people are left out. Too many issues, so huge and impactful on the ground, are not being addressed when chiefs meet in assembly. Women want the hearts, minds, bodies and spirits of their people included in decision-making. That’s the relevance that is missing.
So today, we will see how it all plays out. We in the voiceless majority want change. We want inclusion. We want communication. We want educated mainstream neighbours. We no longer want our political agenda determined by tragedy. We want the protection of our lands, the environment and the rights promised us under treaty. We want safe and healthy communities for our women, children and elders.
More than anything, we want an AFN that remembers that, without us, there is no AFN.
Richard Wagamese, a B.C.-based columnist and author, is the recipient of the 2012 National Aboriginal Achievement Award for Media and Communications. His latest novel is Indian Horse.