Native chiefs say the Assembly of First Nations is both ineffective and unrepresentative at this critical moment in the relationship between their people and the rest of Canada, and the organization must be reformed if it is to survive.
A key item on the agenda of a three-day meeting of the AFN that starts here Tuesday is the timing and location of the election of a new national chief. The position has been empty since Shawn Atleo resigned in May after finding himself offside with the majority in his support for federal legislation to reform on-reserve education.
(What is the Assembly of First Nations? Read The Globe's easy explanation)
But many of the chiefs who took part in an advance meeting here Monday say the AFN has to be overhauled before any leadership convention can take place.
After a historic Supreme Court ruling last month that expanded aboriginal land title rights with broad implications for resource development, and as contentious issues like education and the disproportionate number of murdered and missing women make headlines, most First Nations leaders agree they are weaker without a central spokesman.
But they say they want a national chief who can represent the diversity of regional views – which would be a tall order for any contender. And they want more grassroots control of the AFN national executive than is possible under the organization's current structure.
"The reality is we need a national body that can reflect what's happening in our communities and work in a constructive way so that actual needs and concerns can be addressed at that level," said Bill Erasmus, the Dene National Chief and the AFN's regional chief in the Northwest Territories.
Mr. Erasmus said he believes the chiefs will wait until next summer to hold a leadership assembly so that the reform of the AFN charter, written decades ago, can first take place.
Mr. Atleo's departure has left a fractured organization, with the various regions and, to some extent, the different nations at odds over how to move forward.
Those rifts were in evidence on Monday when chiefs in British Columbia, Mr. Atleo's home province, refused to take part in a preassembly meeting of what's known as the Confederacy, where delegates are selected by region and by population. Regular AFN meetings allow every individual First Nation to have a vote, regardless of their size. The Confederacy, which had been dormant for a number of years, was revived this spring after Mr. Atleo's departure.
One of the proponents of the Confederacy is Isadore Day, the Chief of the Serpent River First Nation in Northern Ontario. Mr. Day said Monday that the issue of reform has been on the AFN books for too long.
"First Nations are saying we need to assemble, we need to put forward our issues in a very articulate and collective way. And we need to get this work done at this assembly to make sure that we have strong representation," he said.
"If this reform isn't looked at and addressed, the AFN is dead. We clearly can't function with the dysfunction any longer."
Some chiefs like Wilfred King of the Gull Bay First Nation say electing a new leader of the AFN should be the priority and a smart candidate for national chief would run on a platform of reform.
"The only way we are going to make ground is if we have somebody to deal with it," he said.
But others say reform must come first and leadership later.
"If we don't have the ship going in the right direction with all of the oars taking us there, how are we going to address any single issue of relevance to our communities?" asked Michael Delisle, the Grand Chief of the Mohawk Council of Kahnawake.
And unless that renewal takes place before a new national chief is elected, said Mr. Delisle, "we're putting them in the same position of failure that's been identified from the early- to mid-'90s"