Ipolitics – Ann Desmarais

Perry Bellegarde is sworn in after being re-elected as the National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations in Vancouver, B.C., on July 25. He won 328 of the 522 votes in a second ballot, giving him just over the 60 per cent needed to be elected as leader for a second term. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ben Nelms

Despite the re-election of Perry Bellegarde as National Chief, some experts say the Assembly of First Nations remains disconnected from the interests of grassroots Indigenous groups and peoples across the country.

Veldon Coburn, a Carleton University professor and member of the Algonquins of Pikwakanagan First Nation, told iPolitics the recent election result does not mirror the views of First Nations people.

“It’s not accountable to First Nations like myself,” he said. “We don’t get to vote for them.”

His criticism comes after 522 chiefs re-elected Bellegarde on a second ballot.

Bellegarde was seen by some as being too close to the Trudeau government before the election. In his first speech as national chief, he told the AFN chiefs that he remains open to a dialogue with the federal government as a way to push ahead key legislative decisions before the 2019 federal election season takes hold.

“We have to work together and as First Nations we have to be involved and be part of that process,” the national chief said. “It’s all about dialogue — listening and respecting our point of view.”

University of Manitoba professor Niigaanwewidam Sinclair said four key bills will be in front of the government this fall, including the formal structure of two ministries for Indigenous Services and Crown-Indigenous relations, the Indigenous Languages Act and the Indigenous rights bill. The initiatives will move the Trudeau government away from the Indian Act towards a renewed relationship with Indigenous peoples, one that represents self-governance, he said.

Still, Sinclair said the AFN’s power to negotiate with the Trudeau government on these bills will not represent the priorities of First Nations on the ground.

“It has to be able to be innovative and unfortunately I see no intention coming from that direction,” he said. “All I see is bureaucracy and more cost.”

After Thursday’s vote, the assembly passed a resolution to stop the work of the Rights Recognition Framework and to ask for a meeting with the federal government to discuss the ongoing rights.

A spokesperson for Bellegarde said the national chief’s priorities remain the same – the preservation of languages, reviewing all federal laws and policies to comply with First Nations rights and promoting education for First Nations.

The problems with the AFN are not solely on Bellegarde’s shoulders — Coburn insists the assembly has not properly represented grassroots Indigenous peoples for the last decade as the organization has basically morphed into a lobby group.

“You can’t really point to anything concrete that they’ve done for individual First Nations citizens,” he said. “It’s an organization that has now transformed itself into an exercise of self-preservation.”

The Assembly of First Nations emerged out of the National Indian Brotherhood in the 1980s. The earlier organization was an umbrella group for provincial and territorial organizations who worked to change federal and provincial policies on behalf of treaty and status groups. The group was instrumental in codifying the rights of Indigenous peoples under Section 35 of the Canadian Constitution when it was signed in 1982, Coburn said.

Those were the important times, Coburn says, when the organization used to advocate on behalf of all First Nations peoples. Coburn says that’s all gone now.

“There’s really been no other national chief that has been less effective,” Coburn said. “He’s so close and so silent on critical issues.”

Under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, the AFN’s participation in high-level discussions has had its rewards.

While Bellegarde has been national chief, the federal government dedicated an additional $17 billion dollars over the next seven years that will go towards the renewal of the Crown-Indigenous relationship as well as other infrastructure projects like housing, water, health, education and languages.

However, Sinclair said “the AFN is not a government.”

“It has no jurisdiction or rights to make decisions on behalf of First Nations.”

The Trudeau government’s decision to divide Indigenous Affairs into two stand-alone ministries: the ministry of Crown-Indigenous relations steered by Carolyn Bennett and Jane Philpott’s ministry of Indigenous Services was made with “zero consultation” with First Nations representatives, Sinclair said. The Assembly of First Nations seemed to approve the division on behalf of all First Nations peoples when that was not the case, Sinclair said.

But “the splitting of those departments has lead to an incredible amount of confusion and an administrative nightmare for First Nations,” he said.

A spokesperson for the Assembly of First Nations said they did not approve the decision made by the federal government and was not engaged on conversations about the departmental split because it has no mandate to approve those decisions.

Several national chief candidates promised a massive overhaul to the AFN to make it more accountable to First Nations individuals. In his concession speech, candidate Russ Diabo said he would continue to try to reform the AFN “from the outside” because the organization “won’t reform itself.”

There’s little alternative to the status quo though on the horizon.

Coburn and Sinclair said one option would be a grassroots movement for a new organization that would work with treaty alliances. However, this would pit any new organization against the AFN – especially when it comes to federal funding.

“Canada’s interest is to keep the AFN going because they don’t want to deal with 630 plus First Nations (individually),” Sinclair said. “Its much easier to deal with one voice that claims to be representing everyone than to go to all First Nations to have conversations.”

Sinclair suggests that something similar to the Treaty Relations Commission of Manitoba, which was formed by the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs as a neutral body to “strengthen, rebuild and enhance the the Treaty relationship” with the federal government, could work. Such a group would not be a denial of the AFN, but could be a way to encourage self-governance from the ground up.