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AFN Election 2012: Stopping the assimilation of First Nations in its tracks

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After we all heard the National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) Shawn Atleo give his speech at the Crown-First Nations Gathering (CFNG), it became readily apparent that the 2012 election campaign for the AFN National Chief had officially begun. Up to this point, Atleo had done little but sing the praises of the Harper Conservatives. It looked like Atleo and the AFN were following in the political footsteps of former President of the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples (CAP) Patrick Brazeau and hedging their bets that sucking up to the bully would yield better results than standing on our inherent rights.

Two things about this "strategy" (if you can call it that): (1) it may have won Brazeau a cushy Senate seat (an immediate, individual gain), but it left the grassroots off-reserve people with nothing but an indebted organization with a horrific reputation as being the mouthpiece of the Cons with an anti-First Nation political slant (long-term, community pain); and (2) the organization itself never gained anything in terms of major budget increases, political concessions from the Cons; nor did it advance the rights and interests of off-reserve Aboriginal peoples in any measurable way.

I would have thought, that after all the criticism launched by the AFN at CAP for being so critical towards First Nations peoples, that the AFN itself would never walk down that same political path. Yet, it appears that Atleo, in an attempt to distance himself from former National Chief Phil Fontaine and make his own mark, decided that selling our souls to the devil would help him do that. It is a naive political strategy that demonstrates Atleo's inexperience in high-stakes politics. He decided to support the Cons as opposed to the Liberals and NDP and decided to follow Harper down his assimilation path instead of participating in concrete social action or stand in defence of our peoples and communities.

Atleo with all his "education" made it his mission to support education -- but in a way which ignored the concerns of the treaty chiefs and the many concerns of the grassroots First Nations peoples. This led to a major rift in the AFN and left regional First Nation organizations with no choice but to publicly denounce Atleo's process. The Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations (FSIN), the Chiefs of Ontario (COO), the Quebec First Nations and more recently the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs (AMC) all stand against Atleo's rogue politics.

To understand the significance of this rift, one must understand how important unity has been for the AFN. The National Indian Brotherhood (NIB) (now AFN) and First Nation politics in general were galvanized in the 1970s when First Nations all across the country were faced with the Liberals' 1969 White Paper which would have abolished the Indian Act, reserves, treaty rights and Indians. The First Nations united in their opposition and defeated the most brazen attempt to assimilate our peoples into oblivion. Since then, the power of unity has defeated the Meech Lake Accord, the First Nations Governance Act, and has also brought attention to our unresolved land issues and discrimination in various Canadian laws. The power of this unity is not to be underestimated.

Atleo, in a few short years, has all but destroyed this unity and has, in essence, gone rogue. While Harper exercises fierce dictatorial control over his MPs and uses the politics of fear to control citizens, Atleo instead opts for a more Lone Ranger approach with similar results. Atleo is advancing his own agenda and according to many Chiefs, he is doing so without properly consulting them. This is a different claim than had Atleo been simply disagreeing with them. The political charge is that he is off making deals, cozying up to Harper, and agreeing to things like National Panels and CFNGs without consulting with the people he is supposed to represent.

This sort of politics is not only ineffective (look at the growing rift), but it seems to me, to be in direct conflict with the AFN's own Charter.

Article 3(a) specifically states that the AFN is supposed to be in the business of "harmonising effective collective and co-operative measures." Agreeing to a national panel on education without consulting with First Nations is not conducive to harmonizing or unifying First Nations on education.

In case this is not clear enough, one need only refer to Article 21 (1) which specifically states that "The National Chief shall have no inherent political authority." So, what power does the National Chief have?

Any power he has is detailed in Article 21(2): "Any authority the National Chief may have shall derive exclusively and entirely from authority granted from time to time by the First Nations-in-Assembly."

It seems to me then, that Atleo agreeing to a national panel on education, and agreeing to a Joint Action Plan all before seeking the specific direction of the Chiefs sounds like he has his own political agenda. The CFNG action plan read like the 1969 White Paper assimilation plan using modern words. Atleo has, in a few rogue steps, turned the Assembly of First Nations into the Assimilation of First Nations.

If what a large number of Chiefs are alleging is true, then Atleo has exceeded his political authority and it's time for him to be removed as National Chief. Even if what they are alleging is not true, the future of First Nations in Canada depends on removing Atleo from office and re-focusing our political strategies and priorities away from one based on federal control and our ultimate assimilation.

First Nations Chiefs will have their chance to voice their concerns at the upcoming AFN AGM which will be held in Toronto this July 2012.

Here is the timeline:

- 10 weeks before the AGM, an electoral officer will be appointed.

- Eight weeks before the AGM, the electoral officer will assume office.

- Four weeks before the election, the electoral officer must submit the names of the candidates for National Chief to all Chiefs;

- One night before the election, he/she must arrange an All Candidates Forum for the AGM;

- The election takes place on the second day of the AGM starting at 9 a.m.

Here are some of the rules relating to the election for National Chief:

1. Candidates must submit their nomination papers to the Electoral officer no earlier than eight weeks prior to the election and no later than five weeks prior;

2. Each nomination form must be signed by at least 15 Chiefs and at least eight of them must not be from the same province as the candidate;

3. In order to be eligible to be a candidate, you must be at least 18 years old, of First Nations ancestry and belong to a First Nation which is a member of the AFN;

4. Candidates cannot spend more than $35,000 for election purposes and must submit a statement of expenses and names of contributors;

Note: The Electoral officer can disqualify any candidate who does not participate in All Candidates Forum or does not file expenses;

5. Chiefs can send proxies to vote in their place;

6. Anyone who receives less than 15 votes is automatically eliminated;

The winner must receive 60 per cent of the vote and if he/she does not, then the candidate with the lowest vote is automatically eliminated and another vote takes place. Chiefs can go through many rounds of voting to obtain the 60 per cent majority.

So, what does all of this mean for the grassroots community members? None of us get to vote in these elections. So, what are our options? I think the more we make ourselves aware of what the AFN is doing in our names, the better we will be able to put pressure on our own Chiefs on how to vote. For many years, in many First Nations, Chiefs have been deciding who he/she votes for as National Chief without ever consulting with the community. It is time for us to make a change and exercise our voices again.

While it is painfully obvious that I do not support Atleo in the upcoming election, it is important to note that I do not and will not be publicly supporting any candidate that chooses to put their name forward. I think candidates need to stand on their own past records, their ability to lead and inspire our peoples, and the quality of their election platforms. In other words, I do not believe we should support candidates based on who endorses them. This becomes a popularity contest instead of one which is based on traditional leadership virtues.

If we have learned anything from the Cons' dictatorship-style politics, is that we do not want to mimic their politics.

That being said, I am always happy to talk to any candidate who wants to know what I think about their platforms. I think the candidates would be well-advised to talk to lots of people, from a variety of backgrounds, about their platforms and start getting their direction from the people again. If a candidate wants to make AFN relevant, their platforms will have to speak to us -- the grassroots people -- as much as they speak to the Chiefs. Free hint: Any platform that is written to speak to the Cons will be as useless as Atleo's.

There are lots of rumours going around about who might put their name forward at this year's election, but we will all have to wait and see who is officially confirmed by the electoral officer. Doug Cuthand, a columnist for the Star Phoenix talks about a couple of these potential candidates.

At the end of the day, it is all just rumour and possibility until the candidates sign on the dotted line and get their nominations from their 15 Chiefs.

As the candidates are announced, I will definitely keep track of their platforms and offer commentary on their strengths and weaknesses as they role out. I will also be trying to find out as much as I can about their past political experiences; their individual track records; their political stance and where they stand on specific issues that matter to me, my family, community and Nation. It is my belief that we as First Nations people should all have a vote as to who will be the AFN National Chief. However, even though I am not permitted to vote, I will still try to have an impact on the results. I think we all have the power to make this election different.

That is not to say that I promote the AFN as "the" vehicle or voice of First Nations, as that inherent authority rests with each Indigenous Nation. However, I do believe that the NIB used to serve a very powerful political and advocacy role in highlighting First Nation issues, bringing international attention to bear, and advocating at the national political level. There is no doubt that AFN has fallen off track in a major way and I don't blame individuals for thinking it is useless and even harmful. I think it is doing far more harm to us now than good. If it stays this way, I will continue to advocate against it.

I think the AFN has the potential to be a useful organization once again but so long as it caters to the will of its funders, it will be no more and no less than what Brazeau was for CAP -- the mouthpiece of the Cons. In other words, the AFN will continue to be the First Nation enforcer of the Cons' assimilation policies. There are those who think they have political savvy that believe we need to make concessions to make stave off mass budget cuts or further control over our communities. In case they forgot, treaties were our concessions and the Cons are bringing budget cuts and more legislation to control our communities. This political "strategy" based on fear is no plan at all.

Our people, our territories and our futures are not for sale and I am not willing to trade my inherent rights for ANY organization. AFN has a choice -- it has to be relevant to First Nations or it will fade into oblivion like CAP did.

In case any of the 600-plus Chiefs can't attend the AFN AGM and election, and they are looking for someone to be their voting proxy, try sending one of our million grassroots folks.

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