By CHRIS PLECASH
The Hill Times
First Nations leaders will determine the election date for AFN national chief at the organization’s general assembly in Halifax this week, but several other pressing matters will be on the agenda, including the role of the recently-revived Confederacy of Nations.
Chiefs from the country’s 634 First Nations will meet in Halifax on July 15 and 16, where they will determine the timing of the next election of the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations following Shawn Atleo’s resignation from the position on May 2.
Some chiefs will be advocating to hold an election as soon as possible, while others support holding the election in December to coincide with the organization’s special assembly. Another bloc is expected to argue in favour of waiting until next summer when the Chiefs-in-Assembly were originally scheduled to elect the next national chief in Winnipeg.
The timing of the next election for national chief is just one of the subplots that will be at play at the annual meeting this week. Other matters on the agenda include Bill C-33, the federal government’s First Nations education legislation; the Supreme Court’s recent ruling in favour of B.C.’s Tsilhqot’in First Nation; and the role of the Confederacy of Nations within the AFN.
The Confederacy of Nations, which had been dormant for the past decade, was revived earlier this year in response to concerns over Bill C-33 and then-AFN national chief Atleo’s support for the federal legislation, and its re-emergence contributed to Mr. Atleo’s resignation.
Some of the chiefs feel that there are more serious issues within the AFN that need to be addressed before a new national chief is elected, said Russell Diabo, an indigenous activist who has served as policy advisor to past AFN leaders.
“Some think that the dysfunction with AFN about sorting out the charter issues around the Confederacy is important to resolve before electing a leader. Others think that it’s important to get a leader in there now, but people are concerned when they look at what the federal government did with [Shawn Atleo],” said Mr. Diabo, publisher of the First Nations Strategic Bulletin. “They’re concerned about sorting out the role of the national chief, the mandate, within this broader discussion of the purpose of AFN. There are those two schools of thought, and they’ll be at play on the floor and in the backrooms.”
Isadore Day, chief of Ontario’s Serpent River First Nation, has played a central role in coordinating the Confederacy’s recent activities and said he’s in no rush to see another national chief elected.
“There was clearly something wrong with the way that the process of political advocacy and coordination had been operating. The central issue and concern was the mandate of the Confederacy of Nations to have oversight, where the executive is reporting to the Confederacy,” Chief Day told The Hill Times in an interview last week.
The Confederacy of Nations will meet ahead of the General Assembly on July 14 in Halifax, where Chief Day expects the AFN’s future to be debated. Based on proportional representation, the Confederacy’s revival has been primarily supported by chiefs in Ontario and Manitoba, and is a counter to B.C. First Nations’ high representation among the Chiefs in Assembly.
B.C. accounts for nearly one-third of the chiefs, but representation in the Confederacy of Nations is based on population, with each region having one representative, plus an additional representative for every 10,000 First Nations living in the region. Within the Confederacy, B.C. accounts for 15 of 105 votes, while Ontario is allotted 21 votes.
“I don’t believe right now that the AFN is in a condition to continue with the current format and the hierarchy that’s in place. [That’s] why I feel the Confederacy of Nations is so vital right now,” Chief Day said. “Perhaps we don’t even need a national chief. Maybe we go back to the original vision of a United Nations-style format that would work a lot better in the current political environment.”
No one has officially declared their intention to run for national chief yet, but several First Nations leaders and activists are rumoured to be considering leadership bids, including Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations Chief Perry Bellegarde, who lost to Mr. Atleo on the eighth ballot in 2009; and AFN Regional Chief for Quebec and Labrador Ghislain Picard, who has assumed the role of AFN executive spokesperson in the wake of Mr. Atleo’s resignation.
Chief Bellegarde’s office did not respond to an interview request from The Hill Times. In a recent interview, Chief Picard confirmed that he had yet to decide whether he’ll run for national chief. Other rumoured contenders include Winnipeg-based journalist and musician Wab Kinew and Shane Gottfriedson, chief of B.C.’s Kamloops First Nation.
Mr. Kinew, who holds a BA in economics and hosted the CBC’s 8th Fire documentary series before joining Al Jazeera’s Fault Lines program as a correspondent, told The Hill Times that his decision to run will be based on timing. The 32-year old plans to marry later this year, recently signed a two-book deal with Penguin Canada, and currently serves as director of indigenous inclusion at the University of Winnipeg. He said that the time has come for the AFN to “evolve” and become more engaged with grassroots First Nations in Canada.
“There’s definitely a need for a national voice for First Nations people, but what we’ve seen in the past two years is the rise of social media, and that’s given the average, grassroots First Nations person a lot more insight into the political process and a lot more voice,” he said. “It would be good to see the organization find a way to bring in the voice of the grassroots, and also evolve and start to use some of that technology to communicate back to the people it represents.”
Mr. Kinew said that he plans to attend this week’s general assembly, as well as the meeting of the Confederacy of Nations, and expects the timing of the next election to dominate talks in Halifax.
“That’s going to be the number one topic of discussion, both in the Confederacy meeting and also the General Assembly. I’ve heard some people say that we need to proceed slowly and go through the process, in their view, the right way. I’ve heard other people say that we need someone in that position as soon as possible,” said Mr. Kinew.
Chief Gottfriedson also told The Hill Times that his decision to run for national chief will be influenced by what transpires at this week’s general assembly. The 48-year old, four-term chief of Kamloops First Nation was an ally of Mr. Atleo and ran unsuccessfully for B.C. regional chief in 2009.
“I’m going to see what’s going to happen in Halifax and make sense of it. I should have my mind made up within the next weeks,” said Chief Gottfriedson, who expressed frustration with the national chief’s recent ouster. He favours the AFN holding an election as soon as possible.
“AFN can be a very effective body when everybody works together. I’ve noticed in the last little while that it can also be really dysfunctional with everybody in their own personal agendas,” he said. “Having someone sit in there on an interim basis, I don’t think, is a very strong statement for our citizens across the country. Getting a national chief into a functional role will only enhance our people as we continue to move forward in light of the many opportunities before us now with the Tsilhqot’in case.”
Mr. Diabo said that Chief Bellegarde of Saskatchewan could have “quid pro quo” support among B.C. chiefs based on his decision not to run against Mr. Atleo in 2012, while Mr. Kinew would likely garner support from First Nations to the east of Saskatchewan.
“[Chief Bellegarde] would be a serious contender if B.C. supports him over Wab. Wab’s support is probably going to come from where Phil [Fontaine’s] support came from — the Anishinaabe communities in Manitoba and Ontario,” he said. “It’s all rumour at this point…. There could be other people coming out, you never know. We’re in interesting times, so there might be other names emerging.”