Doug Cuthand, Saskatoon StarPhoenix

Unbeknownst to the rest of the country, an important political campaign is taking place across Canada. On July 25, chiefs and their proxy voters will gather in Vancouver to elect the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations.

The campaign takes place behind closed doors and only 640 chiefs from across Canada have the right to vote. The candidates are meeting with chiefs and groups of chiefs across the country; there are no stump speeches, no advertising and hardly any evidence that a hard-fought campaign is underway.

The AFN has been around for almost 40 years. In the summer of 1982, the chiefs and their supporters had the first general meeting at Penticton, B.C., and agreed to form a partnership of chiefs to lobby and negotiate with the federal government on a government-to-government basis. This was necessary to advance the position of the First Nations in response to Pierre Trudeau government’s promise to patriate the constitution and develop the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

The predecessor to the AFN was the National Indian Brotherhood. This organization was established in 1967 and was the national voice for the various First Nations organizations that were being organized across the country. The board of directors consisted of the heads of the provincial and territorial organizations called the PTOs.

The evolution from the NIB to the AFN was required to broaden the base of the organization from the regional political organizations to the individual chiefs.

The time has come for further democratization of the AFN. The base needs to be broadened out with a fairer electoral distribution. The FSIN has an electorate based on the population of the First Nation. The bigger the First Nation the more votes they have.

In the case of the national profile, some First Nations have fewer than 200 members while many have more than 10,000. In the case of the largest First Nation — the Six Nations — they have a population of 27,000. Five First Nations that are Mohawk and members of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy include a population of more than 60,000 but only have five votes at an AFN assembly.

On the other hand, British Columbia has 198 First Nations. Saskatchewan, Alberta and Manitoba combined have 180 First Nations.

This imbalance is a major issue that must be addressed by the Assembly of First Nations if they want fairness in voting.

The other issue that the chiefs have to review is the role of the Assembly of First Nations. Is the AFN a lobby organization or does it have the capacity to draft legislation and play a much more political role to drive self government and treaty protection legislation forward?

During the past 50 years, the role of the Department of Indian Affairs has changed from the delivery of services to a funding agency. In doing this, it has transferred programs and administrative policies to the First Nations. Self-government for First Nations has been hijacked and it has become self-administration.

This change is classic neo-colonialism with the colonized taking on the role of the colonizers. This is how the British ran their empire and how many of their former colonies operate today.

The chiefs have to decide if they want to continue down the road of self-administration or seek out a more independent road toward sovereignty.

The National Indian Brotherhood, forerunner of the Assembly of First Nations, was established to have a strong national voice for First Nations. This has remained unchanged to the present.

Over the decades, the federal government has retained a steady policy of the termination of rights and watered-down versions of self-government in the form of federal municipalities ruled over by the Department of Indigenous Affairs.

This has been in opposition to historic advances such as the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, Section 35 of the Constitution and a series of positive Supreme Court and human rights decisions.

The time has come to cash in our legal and political capital and move toward a national organization with the capacity to create meaningful change and complete the process of defining our rights and implementing real self-government.

Next week, I’ll look at the candidates’ profiles and who’s hot and who’s not.

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