Wednesday, September 17, 2014
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Choosing AFN chief a priority

The Starphoenix

The deeply divided and unrepresentative Assembly of First Nations needs some major structural changes to survive and be an effective advocate for Canada's 640 chiefs in dealing with the federal government.

However, the majority of the chiefs who gathered in Halifax this week for the AFN's annual meeting have wisely decided that too many pressing issues are facing the organization to put off finding a replacement for the ousted national chief Shawn Atleo until the reforms are put in place.

Chief Atleo in May became the first to quit what aboriginal affairs columnist Doug Cuthand has called "the worst job in politics," when the majority of chiefs were critical of his support for federal reforms to education on reserves, considering him a sellout. Faced with an unyielding federal government whose take-it-or-leave-it approach to the aboriginal file has been no different from what it did with the provinces on issues such as health care funding, the AFN chief was in an untenable position.

The reforms contemplated by chiefs for the AFN - to make the organization and its head more representative of the diversity of regional viewpoints, institute more grassroots control over the national executive, or even to reject federal funding to eliminate undue influence - have been discussed for much of its 30 years of existence and aren't likely to be achieved anytime soon.

Meanwhile, the need for First Nations to fight for equity in education funding and improve the outcomes for aboriginal children in a knowledge-based economy remains an unfulfilled task; the issue of murdered, missing and abused aboriginal women continues to make headlines.

And two major recent court rulings dealing with aboriginal rights and the duty of governments to consult with First Nations affected by their decisions on the use of traditional lands for resource development and other economic endeavours further underline the urgency for the AFN to have in place a national spokesperson for the chiefs, whatever divisions might drive their internal politics.

The federal election slated for 2015 adds further pressure to get the First Nations agenda organized in time to ascertain which federal parties are willing to further the cause of aboriginal peoples.

Traditionally, the AFN's top job has alternated between someone from among the First Nations who have no treaties with the Crown and rely on aboriginal rights - Mr. Atleo was in this camp - and a contender from aboriginal groups that have a treaty relationship with Canada.

Perry Bellegarde, Chief of the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations and a regional chief of the AFN, is from the latter group and has been mentioned as a possible contender for the leadership vote being held in Winnipeg in December. Judging by the contest that saw Mr. Atleo re-elected in 2012, it's bound to attract some well-qualified candidates.

More than ever, the leadership contenders will have to be prepared to outline just how they plan to effect the changes demanded by the chiefs and deal with the shift in aboriginal politics toward greater accountability demanded by the grassroots.

The editorials that appear in this space represent the opinion of The StarPhoenix. They are unsigned because they do not necessarily represent the personal views of the writers. The positions taken in the editorials are arrived at through discussion among the members of the newspaper's editorial board, which operates independently from the news departments of the paper.

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