The 33rd Annual general annual meeting of the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) is running between July 17-29, 2012, in Toronto at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre where 62O chiefs will decide who will be their Grand Chief for the next three year term.
Current Grand Chief Shawn Atleo faces stiff competition for his title for there are seven challengers for his incumbent position. Atleo is running for his second three year term. His victory hinges on 250 votes.
It should be noted that the grassroots theme that voting for the AFN Grand Chief should not be restricted to Chiefs but open to all delegates and First Nations community members.
This year's AFN theme is "Honoring Our Traditions - Achieving Action for Our Future" and while all candidates were careful to root themselves in the traditions of their respective territories, it was unclear from some candidates' speeches what exactly their plans were beyond the familiar anti-incumbent promises of change.
Shawn Atleo, Bill Erasmus, Ellen Gabriel, Joan Jack, Diane M. Kelly, Terrance Nelson, and Pamela Palmater and George Stanley are the 2012 candidates for office. You can find bios for each candidate here.
There was quite a lot of Harper bashing, and towards the Assembly of First Nations under Atleo's term, as delegates spoke of a feeling of restlessness from their members seeking new solutions to defend their territories and treaty rights from an aggressive Federal government. Atleo was openly criticized by more than one candidate during their speeches to the chiefs on Tuesday afternoon of being too complacent or conciliatory towards Harper's government.
Even before the first candidate took the stage, audience members predicted a real Atleo pile-on by the other seven contenders.
Atleo was the only one of the eight candidates to have an official, little parade as his delegation marched him to centre stage for the speeches, which seemed a forced way to prove his worth.
Atleo spoke of the need to defend First Nations treaty rights in the next three years to counter what he predicted would be a continued attack by the Harper government. He also boldly told the audience that, "we must overcome the Indian Act," which drew lengthy applause.
He also was careful to list all the positive things First Nations communities have experience, including the Canadian government's adoption of the United Nations Declarations for the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and stated that at the helm of the AFN, he has managed to keep the organization vital despite serious funding cuts.
The second to speak yesterday afternoon by random draw, he addressed criticism of his "cozy relationship with the Federal government" through his nominator to prevent any quotable proof from his own words regarding the issue, hoping to put it to rest.
It didn't work and the body of his speech was mostly a list of self-congratulations as he made his bid for a second term on his past performance though he did seem to rest on his laurels too much. This said, the chiefs have been known in the past to not vote for radicals.
Speaking of radicals, Terry Nelson - who just happened to draw the speaking time right after Atleo - came out with the force of a Thunderbird of change. His speech was a perfect mix of humour and militancy as he spoke frankly of his plans to remind Harper of the intrinsic power of First Nations communities across Canada.
Most notably, he addressed a perceived climate of fear that Harper has bestowed on First Nations communities because of his heavy handed funding cuts, etc, and challenged the chiefs not to let fear get the better of their vote. In a thundering voice, he charged that First Nations, "should not be afraid of Harper, Harper should be afraid of us!"
Nelson's candidacy is not without controversy as he again addressed his desire to bypass the Canadian government and create a Nation-to-Nation relationship with countries from the Middle East - especially Iran -- regarding oil exports.
The former Roseau River chief recently visited Iran and extended an invitation for Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to speak further with him to discuss the issue of oil.
Nelson was also communicating with Ahmadinejad in an attempt to get Iran to officially condemn Canada for its treatment of its First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples.
Speaking to the audience regarding foreign control of Canada's oil - which he was quick to point out rests underneath First Nations territory - he said Indigenous people should create, "A new tradition to make sure that George W. Bush kisses the right place when he wants your oil."
He also promised boldly, "If I'm voted in, the Gateway pipeline is dead!"
Pam Palmater was the predicted wild-card vote for Grand Chief as the Mik'Maq lawyer's youthful, feistiness caught the attention of chiefs and the mainstream public alike. In her speech, she spoke of Indigenous communities in Canada needing a "Nation-to-Nation" relationship not only with Harper but with the international community.
Somber but strong, she pointed out early in her speech that, "the status quo is killing our people", referring not only to Atleo's leadership of the AFN, but also the current relationship between Indigenous and mainstream Canadians, including the federal government.
She also slipped in a warning to Harper, stating, ""The strength of our traditions will get us through the hard times" ... "We come from a place of strength."
While making her speech, Palmater held a full eagle feather fan to her chest; perhaps to counter earlier criticism that she was not traditional enough. In her speech, she told her audience that, "Our people are beautiful. The ways of our people are beautiful."
During question and answer period after the speeches, she was forced to defend herself against criticism that she did not have enough real world experience working with First Nations communities.
Despite her strong words, Palmater spoke after Nelson who had stolen not only her thunder but that of every other anti-Atleo/anti-Harper candidate.
Ellen Gabriel - a Mohawk most notably known for her leadership role during the Oka crisis -- did far better than expected as there was fear she would only rest of the laurels of the past.
Instead, strong and passionate, she spoke of a need, "to decolonize our relationship with Canada and decolonize our relationship and with each other," to stop the violence within First Nations communities and in the relationship between these communities and mainstream Canada. This statement drew steady applause.
Gabriel also referenced her vision for the AFN's and First Nations, Métis and Inuit communities on Turtle Island, stating that if there are conflicts with one another, "we shouldn't have go to the Canadian government to resolve them but go to international court because we are nations."
Joan Jack from Berens River First Nation in Manitoba spoke of her family's legacy in defending their traditional territory and traditional concept of land stewardship. She reference, "we all need to eat at the same table," to guide First Nations relations with mainstream Canadians.
Jack also spoke of resource sharing, stating in speech, "we are not against development, we are for prosperity."
Diane Kelly - an Anishinaabe candidate who did not have anyone step up to nominate her; which was noted by the audience - spoke about the legacy of First Nations' knowledge and "traditional systems." She also reminded the audience that, "We never surrendered this land."
Bill Erasmus of the Dene Nation - who's name and reputation as a fighter is well known due to his opposition of major tar sands pipeline projects through First Nations traditional territory - was overcome by emotion during his speech.
The large convention room was silent as he struggled to articulate his feelings on the struggle of treaty rights and Indigenous self-determination of resources. He spoke finally of the power of anger and gave a warning to candidates not to let anger be the guide of their visions.
George Stanley of Frog Lake First Nation was the first speaker with a mild, gentle voice. He spoke strongly of his support to bring justice to the more than 600 murdered and missing women across Turtle Island and vowed to use his position as Grand Chief if elected to confront Canada on its lack of concern over the issue.
He also spoke passionately about the need to defend treaty rights, stating that First Nations, inherent rights are under attack by globalization."
Voting for a new Grand Chief of the Assembly of First Nations begins at 9:00 am today with first ballot results in at 12:30-Nish pm. I will again be live tweeting on site, follow me at @krystalline_k
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