The Assembly of First Nations is a national voice on issues like reconciliation and residential schools, but its July 7 leadership vote tests the strands that link Indigenous people, Peter Stockland reports.
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Updated July 6th, 2021
In its 40th year, the Assembly of First Nations is in the throes of a seven-candidate race to select its National Chief next Wednesday.
But with skeletons of children being rediscovered by the hundreds at former residential school sites, Catholic Churches vandalized or burned on First Nations territories, and the AFN itself accused of financial mismanagement and workplace harassment, critics as well as some leadership candidates question how effectively it’s able to speak for Indigenous people.
Indeed, Joseph Quesnel, who has been immersed in researching and writing about First Nations politics for almost two decades, says it’s a misunderstanding to think the AFN was ever meant to speak for Indigenous people across Canada.
“If you look at the AFN charter, it’s a lobby group representing First Nation interests so the national chief basically represents what the council chiefs in assembly decide. First Nations, like any other human beings, have institutional interests. You have to build coalitions within the organization because the interests in B.C. aren’t necessarily those of the Prairies, Ontario and Quebec, or Atlantic Canada,” Quesnel says.
Photos: Provided by candidate's office.
If those coalitions are delicate to build, they’re also incredibly complex to manage when it comes to the electoral process for choosing the new National Chief. First, the election has to run equitably – this year online – across all of Canada’s time zones for the 634 chiefs eligible to vote. The winning candidate must receive 60 per cent of the votes cast.
Minus a first ballot victory on July 7, then, the lowest polling candidate will be dropped and run off rounds are held until the last hopeful is left standing. Previous votes have been known to stretch for hours – including overnight.
Compounding the challenges for the challengers is that, as Winnipeg Free Press columnist Niigaan Sinclair recently expressed it, “AFN elections are all about regionality, with chiefs in provinces often voting as a bloc for whichever candidate appeals to their region.”
Sinclair illustrates the way those voting blocs worked against Perry Bellegarde in 2009 when the support he drew largely from Prairie chiefs simply wasn’t enough for him to outlast Shawn Atleo’s coalition of B.C. and Ontario voters. Neither contender crossed the 60 per cent threshold, but Bellegarde did the arithmetic and conceded the election after 24 hours. Five years later, however, he had built widespread enough support to be named National Chief and held the three-year post through subsequent re-election until announcing last December he would not stand again.
In terms of pure democracy, then, to win the AFN leadership, you’ve really got to win. It requires, for example, tapping into and holding together the voting power of British Columbia (as Atleo did in 2009) with its largest AFN cohort of 198 distinct First Nations. But you’ve also got to be able to reach across to Ontario or the Prairies to build an electoral base.
The necessity of that coalition building process conveys the aura of authority that was wielded to great public effect by earlier National Chiefs such as Matthew Coon Come, Phil Fontaine, George Erasmus, and Ovide Mercredi. Yet it also creates a natural check on the AFN leader’s power, given that each First Nation across the country fiercely guards its status as a sovereign jurisdiction accountable to its own internal political structures.
If Canada’s federal Parliament and provincial legislatures routinely seem like the proverbial exercise of herding cats to pass legislation for all Canadians, the AFN’s structure creates the appearance of having to convince coyotes to sing in three-part harmony. That said, the coyote is a powerful figure of both independence and wisdom in a multiplicity of Indigenous worldviews. Quesnel notes the demand for both qualities can benefit the AFN as an institution.
He notes, for example, that when Atleo pushed ideas on education reform forward with the federal government during his tenure from 2009-2014, the chiefs pushed back vigorously on the grounds that it didn’t serve their local interests.
“They basically said ‘you don’t have any independent power aside from us’ To the extent they speak for the interests of grass roots, average First Nations people, that can be a good thing,” he says.
But Quesnel, who began his working life as a writer in Indigenous media and is now a senior research associate with Frontier Centre for Public Policy focusing on First Nations economic development, says the very balancing of country-wide competing interests make it perilous for the AFN to speak as a national institution.
“It’s becoming increasingly difficult for the AFN to articulate a vision for all First Nations because they don’t all have the same interests,” he says.
For New Brunswick AFN leadership challenger Cathy Martin, the problem is rooted less in the AFN itself than in what governments across Canada, and many non-Indigenous Canadians expect of First Nations.
“There is a misconception within the federal government, within provincial governments, across the country, that First Nations can all be painted with the same brush, that we all have the same needs, and that everything can be fixed for us with blanket legislation from coast to coast. There’s nothing further from the truth. We’re all diverse nations,” Martin told Convivium recently.
For the AFN itself, she says, that means returning to origins set out in the original charter articulating its function as a “gathering of nations” rather than a sea-to-sea-to-sea Indigenous parliament.
“It started to change to try to be more a consensus-based legislative body, which it is not. It is an Assembly of First Nations. Just that: an assembly. It’s the gathering of the nations to discuss issues that affect them all differently,” she stresses.
Martin points to the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls as illustrative of how nuanced those differences can be.
“I was talking to some chiefs in the Yukon, and they said on the missing and Indigenous women and girls file that for them, it’s more prevention measures that are needed whereas in central Canada and on the Prairies, it’s more about intervention. It’s a different scale – a very different scale.
“They’re secure in their isolated communities in the north. Not to say it couldn’t happen, but it’s not a primary issue for them. So you can’t just have a single response. You need frameworks that fit independent First Nations.”
An elected member of the Listuguj Mi’gmaq government where she has been politically active since she was 18, this will be Martin’s first shot at the AFN leadership. She is one of three women vying for the AFN National Chief post, though she has little patience for emphasis on gender. When she first got into politics, she was sensitive about not being taken seriously because she’s a woman. That changed with independence and wisdom.
“One day, I went into a local coffee shop and there was an elder sitting there. I talked to him, and he sat there listening very patiently to me. When I was finished, he said: ‘If you can’t take a punch, don’t get in the ring.’ It’s true. You can’t be a victim and a leader at the same time. You need to choose what you want to be. You have to find a way to make it work.”
Martin, who has a PhD in educational leadership, emphasizes that finding “a way to make it work” is fundamentally about communication: across the diversity of First Nations themselves but also across the experiential void that separates non-Indigenous Canadians – especially political leaders – from the reality of life on too many reserves.“They need to actually know what it’s like to go without potable water. Decision makers need first-hand knowledge of what’s going on. That will go a long way in terms of meeting basic human rights and realizing it’s not a question of getting anything or giving anything up.
“If the economy is based on the land, and the original holders of the land aren’t fairly compensated, that’s a denial of human rights. The average Canadian doesn’t grasp that yet, but it’s coming. I applaud the truth being taught in schools. I see positive steps, positive change, and we have to continue the efforts to put the truth out there.”
She sees the AFN being able to play a pivotal role fostering those positive steps, though she acknowledges the irony that its own electoral process has been undermined by prevailing conditions on far too many First Nations lands.
Photo: James Gabbert, iStock
“About 40 per cent of our First Nations communities do not have adequate Internet. When you’re trying to campaign virtually for election of AFN leader, you’re getting kicked off the Internet, or having all kinds of problems. It’s not an ideal way for the chiefs to make decisions.”
In fact, she warned frustration with the process might scuttle the vote altogether. In fact, a resolution was presented Tuesday that called for postponement of the election until Dec. 31 at the latest. The resolution was defeated 62 per cent to 36 per cent, with two per cent abstaining following lengthy but respectful debate on the call for delay.
Advocates argued that the cumbersome process was compounded by a wave of crises that have hit First Nations ranging from the COVID pandemic to wildfires in B.C. and northern communities, and the trauma many First Nations are experiencing from discovery of unmarked graves at former Indian Residential Schools.
A contingent of chiefs from B.C. was particularly vocal about the need to postpone the vote, noting that many of their counterparts are too busy protecting their communities from wildfires to engage in an online voting. Some predicted as few as 20 per cent of chiefs would actually cast electronic ballots tomorrow.
But proponents of going ahead held sway by arguing that the crises themselves demand a strong National Chief leading the AFN to deal with the array of difficulties.
“If we wait until there are no crises in order to have an election, we’re going to be waiting a long time,” one speaker said.
While the vote to proceed carried, there was a healthy complement of comments contending that the Assembly’s own structures need to be overhauled to make it function more effectively.
That’s a message that’s come from Alberta where former Tsuut’ina First Nations Chief Lee Crowchild, now a candidate for National Chief, agrees with the thrust from Martin and others such as Manitoba’s Kevin Hart that back-to-basics reform is needed for the AFN’s governing charter. Crowchild, whose home base wraps around the southern and western edges of Calgary, told Convivium he and others in southern Alberta are supportive of a move to proportional representation that would balance out voting inequities between very large and very small First Nations.
But his onus has long been on economic development as a driver of Indigenous progress, and on meaningful multi-party negotiation to resolve local cultural, social and environmental issues. Crowchild’s preferred metaphor is bridge building, and he says even the finding of up to 215 Indigenous children’s remains at the residential school in Kamloops, B.C. has the power to be to the good of reconciliation.
“I’m already seeing it waking people up,” he says in a phone interview as he drives near Pincher Creek in southern Alberta. “People know things have to change, and there are people who are going to make change. I think (the AFN) can be part of leading that.”
In Manitoba, Kevin Hart says the idea of Indigenous children being taken forcefully from their parents and sent to residential schools is shocking enough. The image of many of those children lying in unmarked graves on school grounds leaves most Canadians speechless.
“Look at any other elementary school, junior high or high school in Canada,” Hart says. “How many of them have a cemetery where their students are buried? It’s clear evidence a genocide occurred during the Indian Residential School program. You can’t deny it.”But it’s not just the long-ago dead that epitomize the injustices Indigenous people have experienced at Canada’s hands, he says.
“If you look in Canada’s own back yards at its First Nations, you see we still have Third World conditions. We signed treaties nation-to-nation with a nation called Canada that is now a prosperous G-7 country. We helped build that country. But we still sit here waiting to be treated fairly and equitably by our treaty partner.”
Prime evidence of that is not just in the remains of a discredited 19th century system of education but in the current COVID-19 pandemic when Indigenous peoples from remote territories have had to travel to urban centres for treatment and ended up carrying the virus back to their First Nations. Overcrowding and substandard housing spread infection like proverbial wildfire, Hart points out.
In fact, a literal fire burned Hart’s house to the ground on the Sagkeeng First Nation in June 2019, forcing him to move in with his in-laws, where he and his family are still living. He was not only a regional chief but co-held AFN portfolios for housing, water and emergency services.
“To this day, we’re still homeless because we haven’t had a replacement home build yet. We’re just like any other First Nations family.”
Within days of the fire, however, Hart was meeting with political leaders advocating for basic fair treatment of First Nations people across the 12 portfolios he’s held during his tenure with the AFN. That’s why, despite his belief it needs to return much more closely to its origins in the former National Indian Brotherhood, the Assembly remains the strongest single voice Indigenous people have.
“With these (AFN) portfolios I’ve held in the last 12 years, I’ve been able to advocate and advance on behalf of our First Nations. We’ve been able to add billions of dollars of investment in resources for First Nations across this country. On the social side, look at child welfare. We’ve (achieved) historic legislation that allows First Nations to assert sovereignty and jurisdiction when it comes to the wellbeing of our children. We can create our own laws that take paramountcy over provincial and federal law, which goes back to the original treaty intent.”
Photo: Aleksandr Gromov, iStock
There’s significant further opportunity for Indigenous economic and political progress in post-pandemic Canada, Hart believes, and while he clearly relishes the prospect of leading the AFN into that new era, he’s cautious about talk that he and fellow Manitoban Alvin Fiddler are the two front runners in the race.
“That’s already been determined by the Creator. Whether it happens or not, I’m just going to keep plugging away. I think the chiefs want somebody sworn in on July 7 who’s going to provide continuity but at the same time lead our people out of this pandemic and into economic recovery. If changes need to be made within the Assembly, we’re going to do them collectively. When those changes are directed by our leadership, I hope to be there as national chief to listen to them,” Hart says.
For Melissa Mbarki, that commitment to listen might be coming too late to reform the AFN. Mbarki, outreach coordinator for the Indigenous policy program at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, says the Assembly’s problem is less who it claims to speak for than who is listening to what it has to say. In her experience coming from the Muskowekwan First Nation in north central Saskatchewan, and having lived in Alberta since 2005, that’s not a terribly high number of people.
“Today, if you were to go onto a small reserve and ask, ‘What is it the AFN does?’ no one would be able to tell you what it does. There’s a real disconnect either in (the AFN’s) messaging, their mandate, or how they proceed with things,” she says.
Mbarki sees a key deficiency in the AFN’s overly-close relationship with the Liberal Party of Canada.
“Our reserves shouldn’t be forced into one party’s political mandate. We should be taking a little bit of every party – the best things from each one to benefit us,” she says. “If they want to become part of the Liberal Party, let them run in (a federal) election.”
For example, on an issue as critical to First Nations as passage of legislation to make the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous People (UNDRIP) part of Canadian law, Mbarki was surprised to discover how little consultation the AFN conducted with chiefs across the country before throwing its institutional weight behind the Liberal government bill.
“They just said ‘oh, this is something we’re going to combat racism with’ or ‘this is going to bring reconciliation to our communities.’ But they didn’t say how it was going to be done. One chief I spoke with mentioned that he got one e-mail and they kind of brought it up in a vague way at some meetings, and that was it.”
She’s also sharply critical of what she sees as bureaucratization of the AFN, which she says draws off resources that could go to promoting concrete change on First Nations lands. When she returns home to Muskowekwan, she says, she feels as if she never left. And that’s not a good thing.
“Twenty years later, if I go back, nothing has changed. That is so frustrating for many Indigenous people that have moved away from these communities. I had to ask myself what’s going on, why can we not move ahead? When I looked at the structures, I understood why we can’t get ahead. The AFN is not speaking for us. And all of the money that’s going to its overhead is not going to reserves.”
While Mbarki is drawn to the candidacy of Ontario AFN Regional Chief RoseAnne Archibald, who she finds more media savvy and receptive to outside voices than others seeking the leadership, she thinks the best medium to long term prospect for the Assembly is a dismantling to return local First Nations speaking and directing of their best efforts for themselves. She believes strongly in the power of social media platforms such as Twitter to press Indigenous issues forward in a manner that respects local and individual needs rather than those of an institution and a bureaucracy.
Some of her judgement is based on awareness that, as Hill Times columnist Rose LeMay wrote last spring, the AFN is belatedly facing its own #MeToo moment. LeMay noted that, spurred on by complaints of sexual harassment at its events, the Assembly agreed to create a panel to “review the issue of sexual harassment and rebuild structures to ensure safety in the future.” The vote in favour was solid, but not unanimous.
Strong Indigenous women candidates have challenged for the AFN leadership before, never successfully. Mbarki says the first woman who takes on the National Chief mantle knows she’s going to face a backlash from entrenched males within. That in itself is reason to dismantle rather than attempt belated reform.
“It’s time to dismantle this old boys club because that’s exactly what it is. And it’s not doing anything good for the community. If they want to go back to the way we used to govern ourselves, men, women, youth had an equal say. That isn’t what’s happening now.”
What is happening now, or at least next Wednesday, is one of the most complex selection processes in Canadian politics and, perhaps, a turning point in the country’s history.
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