Ipolitics – Rachel Gilmore

Russ Diabo. Source: Twitter @RussDiabo

A “reluctant” challenger has stepped up to the plate in the lead-up to the Assembly of First Nations’ National Chief election in July. His name is Russ Diabo.

He signalled his intention to run last weekend, though he said he was “reluctant to do so.” As National Chief, the Mohawk policy analyst says he would restructure the AFN, fight existing government legislation, and take on Kinder Morgan.

“My view is, the objective that the Trudeau government is pursuing is to terminate our rights (and) turn us into municipalities where the provinces will have domination over us — get rid of reserves, gradually, and remove our tax exemptions and assimilate us into the general Canadian mainstream,” said Diabo.

“That’s why I’m running.”

While Diabo has yet to launch a website or release a platform, he chatted with iPolitics about his priorities before catching a flight to Vancouver on Tuesday.

Among those priorities is a plan to restructure the AFN.

“Increasingly the grassroots people are questioning the legitimacy of the AFN,” Diabo said.

“They feel the Assembly of First Nations does not represent our interests anymore — they’re representing the interests of the federal government.”

Diabo said the AFN — formerly known as the Canadian National Indian Brotherhood — was first conceived as a way for community chiefs to get together and advise the “head table.” Now, however, Diabo believes the head table is advising the chiefs.

He said that imbalance needs to be fixed.

“It needs to be more decentralized. I would actually see it as more of a secretariat, kind of like the United Nations,” he said.

The leadership hopeful is also concerned about the current government’s approach to Indigenous issues. He said there was a lot of hope when they were elected but, for Diabo, that hope soured as the Liberal mandate has progressed.

“The Trudeau government has co-opted our terminology, like nation to nation and reconciliation — even the term decolonization. They’re taking over and putting their own meanings to it. It’s not what our people mean,” Diabo said.

He also said that Section 35 of the Constitution doesn’t give Indigenous peoples the “full box of rights” that Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett and other ministers have said it does. Diabo said there have been a number of court cases where, despite Section 35, Indigenous communities have had to fight to have their rights respected.

“I think the constitution needs to be reopened… defining Aboriginal treaty rights in Section 35 is unfinished business,” he said.

He also took issue with the way the government interprets Indigenous rights, which he said they do “through the self-government and land claims policies.”

A Diabo-led AFN would also shift gears when it comes to contentious issues like Kinder Morgan and NAFTA.

“I think in terms of NAFTA and trade, all trade agreements, Indigenous peoples have to be a fundamental part of the decision making,” he said.

He said, however, that before the government can negotiate trade agreements, “they need to start sorting out the ownership and access issues with Indigenous peoples.”

As for Kinder Morgan, he said it “should not have been approved,” especially under what he called “the flawed Harper process.”

Diabo said that his opponent, Bellegarde, won’t be able to mediate disputes over major issues like the floundering pipeline project because he said the current National Chief “has no credibility from most of the grassroots people.”

Bellegarde is the incumbent and the only other official candidate. He was named National Chief in late 2014 and hopes to hold on to the leadership for another mandate with a platform that emphasizes self-determination, a “new fiscal relationship” with the government, work on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and the revitalization of Indigenous languages.

Bellegarde’s team would not comment on Diabo’s candidacy.

The two will have some time to square off before the election, and other hopefuls may still come out of the woodwork.

The election will be held at the end of July.