By: Pamela Palmater
The recent First Nations outcry against Bill C-33, the First Nations Control of First Nations Education Act, was a protest against both the federal government’s imposition of the bill and the Assembly of First Nations’ (AFN) support of it. In response to this controversy, Shawn Atleo has resigned as National Chief of the AFN — a move that will force the organization to address a series of governance issues it has been putting off for too long. The time is now to ensure the AFN is truly speaking for those it claims to represent.
The Assembly of First Nations was formerly known as the National Indian Brotherhood (NIB), which some chiefs argue was more reflective of the original intent of the organization. The NIB was known as a strong advocacy organization that put a great deal of effort into bringing about consensus on issues and took all its direction from the leadership. As with all political organizations, it had its difficulties, but comparatively speaking it worked.
The NIB looked very different from the current AFN, which has been mired in internal strife for several years. Criticisms include:
British Columbia First Nations are disproportionately represented in the assembly and thus have disproportionate control;
there is a lack of focus in advocacy, and too much focus on programs and projects at AFN that take funding from First Nations;
there is insufficient follow-up on direction given from the chiefs in the assembly, which some argue results in stacks of resolutions that don’t go anywhere; and
there is a lack of independence from the federal government. Some insiders argue Ottawa has near-total control over the AFN.
Grassroots First Nations people have also suggested that the AFN should find a way to include their voices in addition to those of the elected chiefs. Others argue that the AFN should be wholly transformed into more of an embassy that represents our Nations domestically and abroad. While the demands for change have increased significantly in the last few years, the AFN has shown little interest in substantively changing how it does business. Ironic that the very organization that has called on government to smash the status quo has failed to follow its own advice.
The downward trend in popular support of the AFN is the direct result of recent leaders failing to heed the warnings, advice and input of those it is supposed to serve. The AFN’s positions and actions on the Crown-First Nation Gathering, the AFN-Harper Joint Action Plan, the National Panel on Education, the AFN-Harper-Governor General meeting, and the most recent education bill were all met with significant and widespread criticism from First Nations leaders and citizens all over the country.
Similarly, the Idle No More movement and its call for accountability to the people not only highlighted federal Indian policy and its assimilatory agenda, but also called on its own leaders to be more accountable — including the National Chief of the AFN.
Now, Bill C-33 has put the credibility of the AFN front and centre in the debate over who has decision-making powers with regards to First Nations rights. The government has no reason to be confused about this as every case from the Supreme Court of Canada confirms that the federal and provincial governments have a legal duty to consult, accommodate and even get the consent of the rights-holders themselves, i.e., in the case of the education bill, the Mi’kmaw or Mohawk. No court has ever said the AFN gets to decide. Yet, today the minister put the education bill on hold until the AFN clarifies its position, presuming that the AFN is the decision-maker.
How the AFN executive handles the minister’s request for “clarification” on Bill C-33 will be a strong indicator of where the organization is headed. If the AFN executive chooses to stay the course in its support of the bill, despite the widespread and vocal opposition within First Nations — that will likely be the final nail in the coffin for the organization.
However, if it chooses to tell the government that any consultations and decisions must be made with and by the rights-holding First Nations, then that might be an indication that the executive is listening. Either way, the message from First Nations is clear: regardless of AFN’s new position on Bill C-33, it will be the rights-holding First Nations themselves that decide their own fate in education.
Dr. Pamela Palmater, chair in Indigenous Governance at Ryerson University, is a lawyer, activist and former spokesperson for the Idle No More movement. She ran against Shawn Atleo in the last AFN election.