Thoughts on the role of the National Chief and AFN structure
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Thoughts on the role of the National Chief and AFN structure

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May 29, 2014

Many First Nations citizens are unhappy with what happened at the recent Special Chiefs Assembly – both in terms of process and results. Some are asking for the National Chief not to be replaced or to be replaced through a process where s/he is selected by First Nations citizens via individual vote. Quite clearly the process and structure is not working. People need to remember that AFN is using a process that is not ours. Its modeled on a federal and provincial system, yet the original concept was to move to an Indian Nations United Nations. We are using Roberts Rules of Order instead of our own traditional consensus decision making. Voting is an adversarial system that is divisive in its very nature. But achieving consensus takes longer and Chiefs need to be prepared to meet longer.

The National Indian Brotherhood, which is the real and corporate name of what everyone calls the AFN, was never intended to be a government. Originally it was an organization of organizations. The Chiefs who represent the 633 First Nations communities are the AFN and they need to reconstitute themselves as their 50 – 80 original Nations. This was one of the recommendations of the 1996 RCAP report.

The idea of all First Nations citizens voting for a national chief would undermine the historical relationship and validity of the Treaties with the Crown. This is not a new idea. It was proposed during the RCAP hearings and during the Charlotte Accord discussions. If this were to happen the Government would use it to undermine the Treaties and the sovereign Treaty relationship and the authority of the Chiefs to represent their people. Canada could then say the AFN is a government that represents all First Nations across Canada. Canada would say there is no need to listen to, negotiate or deal with the Chiefs of the First Nations anymore cause the National Chief was elected by all the people – s/he speaks for us now. There are no Treaties between the AFN and the Crown. This is not moving in the direction of decolonization but rather towards re-colonizing ourselves. There are also numerous technical obstacles that would need to be overcome. Who would be eligible to vote for the National Chief? On-reserve only or all First Nations citizens regardless of residence? How would you find them and enumerate them – create a legitimate list of eligible voters? Would you use the status card – itself an instrument of colonization or self-identification, as is done in the Canadian census? Where would the election for National Chief be held – on reserves, urban centres or both? How would ballots be collected and counted? How often would the vote be held – 3 years or 4 years and who would oversee the vote. Canada just passed a law on Band elections – would that apply? It allows the Minister to step in of there are disputes? How would disputes be handled with an election for National Chief? What percentage would be needed to win? If its not met what happens? A recent election for National Chief took 24 hours to conclude – how do you do that on a national basis? What if only a small percentage turn out to vote – is it still legitimate or would there need to be a voting threshold?

A national election would be also be expensive. Who would pay for it? Canada has a multi-million dollar body called Elections Canada to manage their elections, funded by taxpayers. Is this the direction we want to take? My sense is no. Asking Canada to pay for it is not going in the direction of self-determination? Would each First Nations be asked to contribute to the cost? Or would individuals be asked to pay?

Some or our people are seeking change. They are not happy with their current leaders for a variety of reasons and there is no doubt there are problems with some of the leadership in our communities. There is corruption there as there is in other governments, but it isn’t everywhere. But we also know they are not all bad and there is much good that is happening in our communities, in spite of what Harper is trying to do to destroy our peoples. But the way to deal with our leadership problems is not to go to an external model but to work to fix the one that’s broken. It means getting involved at the community level and working to identify the issues and proposing solutions using our own practices and traditions. And if the leaders aren’t doing a good job, turf them out at the next election.

At the national level one of the models that has been identified several times over the past 30 years is the concept of a First Nations United Nations model. We could adjust it to adjust it to meet our needs. For example, the National Chief could take on a role like the Secretary General of the UN – spokesperson when consensus had been achieved. Our Nations could reconstitute or reassert themselves by Treaty group, for example. or as our original nations – the Mohawk, the Cree, the Haida, Dene, etc. Individual nations maintain their sovereignty but come together on issues of mutual concern or importance.

Using this model, which is closer to the current Confederacy of Nations body in the AFN charter, there would be no need for all First Nations Chiefs to attend every meeting. Each Nation would choose their representatives and they would go with mandates and report back to their respective nations through processes they design. Decisions would not be binding unless or until each First Nations government had taken it back home, discussed it in their Councils and decided they agreed with it. Hopefully there would be a preference for doing away with Resolutions altogether and moving to Statements or Decisions of Action, that participants have chosen to take to advance their rights and interests.

This will not be easy. Moving to this model would challenge us greatly. Many of the 634 First Nations community governments or band councils now think of themselves as nations when in fact they are part of a larger nation based on treaty, culture, linguistic identity and history. It would take a while to set this in place but the road of a thousand miles begins with the first step.

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