Native leaders have voted to elect a new head of the Assembly of First Nations quickly rather than allow the fractured organization to go leaderless during the period of renewal that they agree must follow the resignation of Shawn Atleo.
Some of the chiefs attending a three-day annual meeting in Halifax said on Tuesday that the challenges and opportunities facing First Nations, including the impact of a recent historic Supreme Court decision on aboriginal title, are too immediate to allow the job of chief spokesman to be vacant for more than a year.
And with a federal election looming in 2015, some said the AFN needs to speak with one voice to political parties as they establish campaign priorities.
(What is the Assembly of First Nations? Read The Globe’s easy explanation)
Others had argued that replacing Mr. Atleo, who stepped down as national chief in May over his support for the Conservative government’s attempts to reform on-reserve education, should wait until the organization has been restructured into an entity that is more responsive to the people it serves. But they were overruled.
Some First Nations regions had declared the AFN has outlived its usefulness, or were threatening to go their own way because they cannot find common ground with the others. However, those who say it is urgent to stand together argued successfully that a new national chief could be the uniting force.
The chiefs voted to hold a leadership vote in December in Winnipeg instead of waiting until next July, when a convention to elect a new national chief had been scheduled.
Some, such as Chief Joe Miskokomon of the Chippewas of the Thames First Nation in southwestern Ontario, said he wishes the election were sooner than December because several issues require urgent action.
A Supreme Court ruling last month that provided clarification for proving aboriginal title, and another last week that said Ontario can issue logging permits for First Nations’ land, will have “a very significant effect on the whole issue of accommodation and consultation,” Mr. Miskokomon said. “So there needs to be somebody who has some view of that, and can express that view on behalf of the First Nations of Canada.”
Grand Chief David Harper of the Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak said any of the candidates to replace Mr. Atleo will have to campaign on promises of reform, but the AFN cannot function as a “headless” organization. That is particularly true in the year before a federal election, he said. “This is the time to set the parties straight and say, ‘This is what we want, now what will your platforms do?’”
But even though the December date was not officially opposed in a vote on the assembly floor, many chiefs said it is wrong to elect someone to lead a flawed organization.
Chief Gordon Beardy of the Muskrat Dam First Nation in northern Ontario warned the more than 300 native leaders at the meeting that, without renewal, the next national chief will be torn apart by the AFN membership. “We did that to Shawn Atleo,” he said.
Alvin Fiddler, the Deputy Grand Chief of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation, which includes Muskrat Dam, said the biggest challenge faced by the incoming leader of the AFN will be the lack of time the organization has given itself to do internal work of renewal and healing.
“The analogy I would give,” Mr. Fiddler said, “is that many of our members, because we are remote and isolated, have to travel out for help if they have issues with addictions. And, when they come back, because nothing has changed, the chances of them relapsing are great.”
It is difficult to gauge how many people may be interested in becoming AFN’s national chief, especially given the obvious fissures in the organization.
Ghislain Picard, the AFN regional chief for Quebec who has been the AFN spokesman since the departure of Mr. Atleo, said on Tuesday he has not ruled out a bid. A motion will be decided on Wednesday that could see him appointed interim national chief.
Two other names being floated as potential contenders for national chief are Perry Bellegarde, the AFN regional chief for Saskatchewan, and Wab Kinew, a broadcaster and musician who is the director of indigenous inclusion at the University of Winnipeg.
Mr. Picard told reporters that everyone realizes the primary focus of the AFN is the interests of native peoples. But “as any other entity across the country,” he said, “we have to go through difficult times.”