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After Atleo

Is the Assembly of First Nations with its national chief part of the problem or solution?

Judith Sayers 7 May

Judith Sayers (Kekinusuqs) is from the Hupacasath First Nation in Port Alberni, B.C., and a lawyer. She also holds a honorary Doctor of Laws from Queen's University. She is currently serving her first term as an elected member of the First Nations Summit's political executive.

She is a member of the Tyee National Pool, made possible by generous contributions by readers who pledge monthly amounts as Tyee Builders.

When Shawn Atleo became the eleventh national chief of the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) in 2009, many people saw the heralding of a new era of leadership and possible change. That era came to an abrupt end on May 2, 2014 with Atleo's resignation 14 months before the end of his term. His resignation was based on the intense controversy regarding his support for Bill C-33, the First Nations Control over First Nations Education Act that the majority of chiefs in Canada oppose. His resignation has people wondering what's next for AFN and who will be the next national chief.

According to the Charter of the Assembly of First Nations, the executive that comprises 10 regional chiefs collectively take over the role and function of the national chief until the Chiefs in Assembly decide next steps. The executive will need to convene a special chiefs meeting to call an election that would be for a full term of three years as opposed to a byelection for the remainder of the term. Ten weeks prior notice is needed to call such an election.

The AFN faces some major hurdles in the next few months. The first hurdle facing the chiefs and the next national chief is Bill C-33. Surprisingly, Monday morning, Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt announced that he is "putting Bill C-33 on hold until AFN clarifies its position on the legislation in the wake of the resignation of its national chief."

The chiefs will need to put in place a strategy and propose a process to the minister on how the government and First Nations can work together on First Nations education.

They must figure out a way that their particular needs and concerns for First Nations education can be taken into account and not just a one size fits all piece of legislation.

Most importantly, they must set out how First Nations will have control and jurisdiction over education. First Nations negotiating their own agreements on education has had the most success so far and may be one solution.

Blocking bulldozer legislation

A lot of work has been done at the community and national level and can be used as the foundation for the strategy. Chiefs can be proposing their own solutions to the minister to show him what they want and how it can work without Bill C-33. First Nations with assistance of AFN need to take control of this issue, and not allow the federal government to bulldoze legislation through as it has with omnibus bills C-38 and C-45, the First Nations Election Act, the First Nations Financial Transparency Act, and the Family Homes on Reserves and Matrimonial interests or Rights Act. Such imposition of laws only leads to court challenges, protests, and direct action that destroys any relationship between First Nations and the federal government.

There is no level of trust or that exists right now, and it is a positive step that Valcourt backed down on Bill C-33 for a short time and AFN and chiefs must take advantage of this opportunity to promote their own agenda.

Another hurdle to surmount is ensuring that whomever the chiefs elect as the next national chief will follow the mandate of the chiefs as set out in resolutions and go back to the chiefs whenever agreements are negotiated for them to determine if it is what they want. Lessons must be learned from the experience around Bill C-33. There is no inherent political authority in the national chief. The chiefs must ensure that the national chief does not overstep these bounds or it will be seen to be acceptable, such as when Shawn Atleo attended a meeting with Prime Minister Stephen Harper in January 2013 without a mandate to do so. The new national chief will have to work together with all First Nations, mend divisions and help set a new direction.

Assembly of First Nations still needed?

Part of a new direction can come from a good debate about the relevancy, effectiveness and need for the Assembly of First Nations.

Much has changed with First Nations over the past 10 years, and First Nations have built capacity and are their own effective spokespersons. Many are negotiating their own agreements that meet their needs. Is the AFN needed any more? And if it is, what role will it play? What structure should it have and should all First Nations people have a vote?

If there is no need for AFN and a national chief who is an effective advocate, it should be set aside. When the treaty nations held their own meeting last July instead of attending the AFN general meeting, it showed that AFN is not meeting the needs of all First Nations interests.

One of the biggest hurdles AFN faces is that the minister of Aboriginal Affairs thinks he only has to consult with the national chief and AFN and not the 633 First Nations across the country. When Valcourt told opposition parties that they should ignore the chiefs on Bill C-33 and only listen to the national chief, alarm bells sounded across Indian Country. Even today's announcement stated that the AFN must clarify its position on the legislation -- AFN and not the chiefs. If the federal government uses the national chief as the primary person to consult with on matters that affect First Nations across Canada, this must be addressed. Consultations can only take place with each First Nation, a principle that is well established in many court cases. It is a constitutional obligation of the minister.

Too close for comfort

Another issue for consideration: How close is too close in an AFN relationship with the federal government? Atleo was seen as being too close to the Conservatives. Former National Chief Phil Fontaine was seen as too close to the Liberals. Whoever becomes the next national chief cannot have the kind of relationship with the Canadian government that compromises the independence of the national chief and the interests of First Nations as happened with Atleo.

AFN must address these major issues and many others in a post Atleo era. The chiefs have to assert themselves more and demand consultation with their communities and not use AFN as a negotiating body.

If AFN continues to exist, it must become more relevant and accountable to the communities.

If AFN ceases to exist, chiefs will need to form strong networks that can support one another in common issues and come together in force if any issues call for it.

Such a strategy will ensure the minister of Aboriginal Affairs does his consultations with the rights holders -- the First Nations.

A post-Atleo era will be different. Every national chief is different, and First Nations dealings with issues must be different as well. Positive results and solutions must be arrived at in education and all other issues in order for First Nations in this country to thrive, develop and be self-determining. First Nations deserve and respect nothing less.

*Due to an editor's error, a previous version of this article misidentified the author of this article as the current elected chief of the Hupacasath First Nation.  [Tyee]

Read more: Indigenous

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