First Nation unity is being questioned by media with upcoming AFN elections


Who speaks for aboriginals?

Dale Eisler- November 25, 2014

A march in Toronto prior to the Assembly of First Nations' annual meeting.Aaron Lynett/National PostA march in Toronto prior to the Assembly of First Nations' annual meeting.

It's sometimes tempting to talk of turning points and pivotal moments in the course of public events, especially around elections. This might be one of those times.

Next month, the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) will elect a new national chief to replace Shawn Atleo, who resigned amid internal dissension and discord earlier this year. At stake could be the very future of the AFN, an organization a growing number believe has lost its credibility to represent the collective interests of First Nations and aboriginal people.

Most troubling is that view is shared by numerous First Nations chiefs themselves, the very people who will select either acting National Chief Ghislain Picard from Quebec, Perry Bellegarde of Saskatchewan or Leon Jourdaine of Ontario when the AFN meets in Winnipeg. Whoever wins, the number one task of the next national chief is to make sure he is not the last. That means rebuilding the AFN as a relevant, representative and meaningful organization.


There are many reasons the AFN faces a crisis of legitimacy. The most critical is the very notion of sovereign First Nations themselves. Think of the United Nations and its attempts to find harmony and common ground among the world's nation-states. Consensus is often impossible. It shouldn't be surprising the same is often true for the AFN as it tries to forge consensus among Canada's more than 600 First Nations governments, many with different histories, cultures, languages and priorities.

Add to that what is inherently an adversarial relationship between First Nations and the federal government. No one should be surprised by that fact, given the history of control and exclusion that generations of Canadian aboriginal people have experienced, reflected in everything from loss of land and resources to residential schools.

For years, the AFN has tried to position itself as the voice of First Nations, an interlocutor with the federal government that defends and speaks for the interests of aboriginal people and their governments. In a relationship rooted in the Royal Proclamation of 1763 that recognized aboriginal rights over land they occupied, the AFN has attempted to be a bridge between the federal government and aboriginal people.

Atleo was accused of failing to consult, in effect, becoming a pawn of what many chiefs deemed the federal government's flawed initiative

But, as a lobby for First Nations, the AFN has had limited success, a victim of its own diverse constituents and a federal government that often seeks to control and limit aboriginal rights in the courts. Chiefs from across Canada value their individual sovereignty and aren't willing to cede it easily to allow the AFN to speak on their behalf. The issue was never more apparent than with the demise of Atleo, who resigned in the wake of backlash against his negotiation and support for federal legislation to reform First Nations education. Atleo was accused of failing to consult, in effect, becoming a pawn of what many chiefs deemed the federal government's flawed initiative.

Not surprisingly, the failure of the AFN to speak as a credible voice for First Nations on the issue deeply ruptured its relationship with the current federal government. Its relevance and ability to act as a partner have been called into question.

Moreover, the AFN's relevance to many First Nations chiefs it purportedly represents is also in serious doubt. It comes down to fundamental issues, such as treaty rights vs. aboriginal title. The majority of First Nations are covered by treaty and see their treaty rights as the foundation of their sovereignty. However, most First Nations in B.C. do not have treaties and seek to assert their right to aboriginal title as confirmed this year by the Supreme Court. It presents a fundamental challenge: How are rights established in treaties from the 19th century reconciled with the notion of modern-day aboriginal title where often major 21st-century natural resource development is at stake?

At the same time, internal First Nations grassroots discontent expressed in the Idle No More Movement is a test of the established order, both to regional chiefs, the AFN itself and other governments.

These divisions and questions are playing out at a time when the relationship between aboriginal people and governments has never been more important. The courts have brought greater clarity to the rights of First Nations and aboriginal people, rights that need to be addressed if progress is going to be made in improving the lives of First Nations people, often through development of major natural resource projects on traditional aboriginal territory.

Coming at a critical time in the complex and evolving relationship with First Nations, it could be the last opportunity for the AFN, as the voice of aboriginal people, to redefine the terms of engagement in a way that finally helps end their marginalization.

The next national chief of the AFN must grapple with and resolve these issues in the coming months. Success hinges on building authority, both within First Nations communities themselves and with other governments, as a voice that brings clarity to addressing challenges that are as old as Canada itself.

National Post

Dale Eisler is a senior policy fellow at the University of Regina's Johnson Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy.