Chiefs are working to create a new National Treaty Alliance that would mount a tough stand on treaty rights, raising the spectre of a fractured Assembly of First Nations at a time when aboriginal-federal relations are already strained.
The push for a new group comes just as the assembly is forming a task force to "flesh out" a treaty implementation process, according to a statement released Friday after a two-day treaty forum in Saskatchewan. A National Treaty Alliance could dilute the AFN's voice as the assembly works to help First Nations secure rights that they say have been squandered due to modern legislation and a lack of recognition.
"There's a growing sense that something needs to happen – that people need an alternative," said Grand Chief Derek Nepinak, who represents 60 Manitoba First Nations. "We have to be brave enough to look at something new, and that's where we're going."
Grand Chief Nepinak said the new group would be open to First Nations that have signed modern comprehensive land claim settlements, but the thrust of its membership would be nations that long ago signed treaties entitling them to rights such as reserve lands, annual payments and hunting and fishing privileges.
National Chief Shawn Atleo has presided over a particularly tumultuous four months that saw the rise of the Idle No More protest movement and brewing divisions within his assembly over how it should interact with the Harper government. Although Regional Chief Perry Bellegarde, the assembly's point-person on treaties, said a message of unity emanated from the Saskatchewan forum, the rise of a new group threatens to divide First Nations at a particularly tense moment in aboriginal-federal relations.
"The government would love [if a new group emerged] because we'd be divided and conquered," Regional Chief Bellegarde said.
Grand Chief Nepinak, a vocal critic of Chief Atleo's Jan. 11 meeting with the Prime Minister, said he discussed the prospect of a treaty alliance at the Saskatchewan meeting. "We seem to be spinning our wheels," he told hundreds of delegates. He also spoke about asserting aboriginal rights and jurisdiction, tacitly encouraging First Nations people to hunt and fish when they deem appropriate and "without consideration of conservation officers."
After the meeting, he sent a letter to Chief Atleo saying the recommendations that came out of the forum "must not be considered as consultation" and that treaty negotiations must be done on a nation-to-nation basis. In an e-mailed statement to The Globe and Mail, Chief Atleo said the meeting fostered "open dialogue with clear results directing the AFN to continue efforts supporting Treaty First Nations."
The push for a treaty alliance has been percolating for decades: In the 1980s, the Prairie Treaty Nations Alliance was born, and for the past several years leaders from the numbered treaties have met annually. A formalized National Treaty Alliance would bring together treaty nations from regions across the country.
Ontario's Chief Isadore Day and Manitoba's Chief Norman Bone said they are also working to shore nationwide support for the new group, calling and e-mailing leaders and pitching the idea in presentations at chiefs' gatherings. Chief Bone pulled his First Nation out of the assembly in 2005, and while the organizers say they are not encouraging chiefs to do the same, Chief Bone said others might follow suit once a new group is created.
Simon Fraser University Professor Doug McArthur said the new group would "weaken the First Nations position" at a time when aboriginal youth are being eyed to fill employment gaps and when resources are especially key to the federal agenda.
"Fracturing the AFN would really play into the hands of the federal government," said Mr. McArthur, who served as B.C.'s deputy aboriginal affairs minister.