The Assembly of First Nations is meeting in Halifax this week, with 242 chiefs, or their proxies, present. The first order of business was dealing with the fallout from the unprecedented resignation of National Chief Shawn Atleo in May. Atleo resigned over criticism of his handling of Bill C-33, which dealt with education policy: some regional chiefs thought Atleo was giving up native control of education in return for more federal money for First Nations schools. Ever since, the Assembly has been governed by an executive committee, and the federal education bill has been suspended until the Assembly can clarify its stand on the issue.
Without a National Chief, the AFN is reeling. There has been no national spokesperson to respond to an unprecedented court ruling recognizing aboriginal title to land in British Columbia, leaving some chiefs saying that media coverage of the issue has been dominated by non-aboriginals. Since the education bill has been tabled, AFN is receiving no federal funds for education, and so can hire no analysts to help them wade through that sticky issue. Worse, the Assembly’s overall finances are taking a hit, as federal money—as much as $2 million, said one chief—is being held back on any number of other projects. Additionally, the executive committee is attempting to restructure how the organization works and help budge AFN into a somewhat less dysfunctional direction.
Some chiefs also said a National Chief should be in place well before the October 2015 federal election, so that natives can influence the course of that election.
After a lengthy and broad-ranging discussion, the chiefs voted to hold a special election in December, in Winnipeg. The National Chief usually serves for three years but the National Chief will serve three-and-a-half years so that the following election will resume at the regular July general assembly of the AFN. There will be a 10-week campaign season before the elections.
Chippewa Chief Tom Bressette moved that Ghislain Picard, the Regional Chief of Quebec and Labrador and the longest-serving chief on the executive committee, as the Interim National Chief until the December election seemed to have broad support. But Picard said he would like to consult with the Quebec and Labrador caucus before agreeing to the motion, so the matter was put off until tomorrow.
Late in the day, Picard led a discussion on “Restructuring AFN: Transforming AFN decision-making to support nation re-building.”
Former National Chief Bill Erasmus pointed out that the colonial governments refused to recognize any native governance beyond the band or community level. Starting in the 1960s, native peoples started reconstituting their national units, for example with the Cree and Dene peoples started electing Grand Chiefs who represented the entire peoples. The federal government refused to deal with the Dene as a national unit, said Erasmus, and the Dene “backed down, unfortunately.” But AFN also still uses the colonial relationship, and Grand Chiefs have no status at AFN. Erasmus wants the AFN charter changed to recognize both traditional native governments and newly emerging forms of governance.
Some chiefs had expressed a desire for national popular vote among natives for a National Chief, but Erasmus argued against such a move, saying that it would lead to American style, big-money never-ending campaigns. He wants to keep the existing system of the chiefs alone electing the National Chief.
A task force was created to look into these and other issues. And discussion of a motion related to rules around the executive committee was put off until 1pm tomorrow.
At the end of today’s meeting, one chief pointed out that AFN is still divided over Bill C-33, and that so long as that issue is unresolved, the next National Chief is being set up to fail.