First Nation chiefs gathering in Ottawa this week to decide on new leadership and direction for AFN


AFN's future at issue when chiefs hold emergency meeting

Shawn Atleo's resignation reveals internal divisions that some say doom the organization

Posted: May 23, 2014

Shawn Atleo's resignation as national chief of the Assembly of First Nations has highlighted the deep divisions within the organization. First Nations chiefs will hold an emergency meeting next week. (Reuters)

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First Nations chiefs from across the country will head to Ottawa next week for an emergency meeting that will take on several controversial topics, including the Conservative government's education bill.

However, an even greater issue at the May 27 gathering might be the election of a new national chief and the future of the Assembly of First Nations, whose divisions were laid bare by the surprise resignation of National Chief Shawn Atleo on May 2.

"I'm not sure we can be able to overcome the divisions," Doug Kelly, grand chief with the Sto:lo tribal council in British Columbia, told CBC News.

"I think we've reached a place where, if the Assembly of First Nations does not change significantly, it will fail."

Atleo's resignation came during rancorous discussions with the government on its First Nations education bill. Atleo, who tried to broker an agreement, had faced calls for his ouster on social media and criticism from some regional chiefs over his support for the education overhaul.

In announcing his decision, Atleo said he was no longer willing to be a "lightning rod" for criticism of the bill. As a result, negotiations over the education bill have been put on hold indefinitely by the government.

It's not the first time AFN has talked about big changes.

When Phil Fontaine was national chief in the late 1990s he created a commission to look at how the AFN could renew itself to become more relevant.

"There were some very controversial things that we looked at," said the review's co-chair, Joe Miskokomon, Chippewas of the Thames chief. "It was not a well-received report by the executive overall."

Roger Augustine, the AFN's regional chief for New Brunswick and P.E.I., doesn't think it's too late for the organization to renew itself.

"Now is the time to show our young people that the world of politics and leadership in the aboriginal nations is the true power in Canada."

Vocal minority

Augustine argues that the group of First Nations chiefs who drove Atleo out of office is a vocal minority,
as are those calling for an economic shutdown of Canada if the federal government doesn't withdraw its legislation.

"You can't let radicals take control of the organization, and I know the assembly of chiefs will not allow it," Augustine said.

Augustine is optimistic the next great AFN leader is out there ready to unite the fractious chiefs.

"There's a hero coming," Augustine said. "May not be next week, but soon we'll be able to find that leader - or that leader will find us."

Kelly isn't so sure.

"We may have some bright, talented young women and young men that want to advocate for transformative change, but they'll look at what happened to Shawn and say, 'Uh, no thank you.'"

Wab Kinew, the University of Winnipeg's director of indigenous inclusion, sees difficult times ahead.

"We have a very young population today," said Kinew, who is considering running for national chief. "Most of the indigenous community is under the age of 30, so the AFN, I think, needs to evolve.

"It's going to be very hard for the next few years, but it's going to be crucial in terms of setting this country on to the proper course of including First Nation's people."