The Assembly of First Nations will elect a new national chief next week in Calgary. As Phil Fontaine retires after an eight-year tenure, five candidates are vying for his job, the top position in First Nations politics.
This style of politics is actually similar to that practised by non-native peoples in Canada. There are nominations, campaign fundraising, secret ballots and majority votes. Indeed, in much the same way MPs elect a party leader, band council chiefs elect the national chief.
While there’s a robust slate of committed candidates seeking the job, the population the organization purports to serve is increasingly divided.
For supporters, there’s been progress on a number of fronts: squeezing a residential school apology from the Harper government; helping to draft a new specific claims tribunal; and creating more space in the public square for discussion on policy issues.
For detractors, the AFN does a poor job of representing those living in cities (now a slim majority, according to Canadian government figures), and women have had difficulty gaining support from the organization at critical times.
In some quarters, there also is outright rejection of the AFN because it is comprised of band chiefs who derive their authority from the widely despised Indian Act. As such, the organization will always be subordinate to non-native governments that harbour few sincere commitments to First Nations peoples.
Amid this division, the five men running to become national chief of the organization are, perhaps not surprisingly, campaigning on a platform of change for “a new AFN.” From likely front-runners to long shots, the candidates are: John Beaucage, Shawn Atleo, Perry Bellegarde, Terry Nelson and Bill Wilson.
John Beaucage, a former economist and chief of Wasauksing First Nation, has been the grand chief of the 42-nation Union of Ontario Indians (otherwise known as the Anishinabek Nation) for the past five years and is fairly popular in Ontario, winning his last election by acclamation.
Beaucage expresses the desire to transform the AFN into a true confederation of nations – reducing the 600-odd bands to the 60 historic political/cultural entities. This would also include a move away from the Indian Act and toward entrenching self-government explicitly in the Canadian Constitution.
Beaucage is also focusing on First Nations youth – an exploding segment of the population – as well as education, adequate housing and economic development.
Shawn Atleo has been the regional chief of the AFN in British Columbia since 2003 and a hereditary chief of the Ahousaht First Nation since 1999. While there hasn’t been an AFN chief from the West Coast since the mid-’70s, B.C. has one-third of voting chiefs and Atleo appears popular among many of them.
In terms of policy, Atleo shares many of the views of Beaucage but is particularly vocal regarding education, with a focus on skills training and an adequate understanding of the legacy of residential schools in the hope of reconciliation.
Atleo also prioritizes economic development. He seeks to leverage treaty rights in addition to creating partnerships with private industry while maintaining traditional cultural values, including ecological stewardship.
Perry Bellegarde also has the potential to win. The former grand chief of the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations and former regional vice-chief for the Assembly of First Nations is Cree from the Little Black Bear First Nation, where he is currently a band councillor.
Bellegarde advocates the creation of “First Nations Acts” in Canadian legislation to deal with varied issues from health to language preservation.
He also seeks the ratification of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and a renewed assessment of the First Nations fiscal arrangement with the federal government.
Diverging from these three candidates is Terry Nelson, chief of the Roseau River Anishinabe First Nation for 10 years and a supposed “firebrand.” But the moniker is undeserved as Nelson asks legitimate questions. For instance: Why, while Canada grows rich on resources obtained in First Nations territory, do the people dwell in poverty?
So he proposes the assumption of jurisdiction over those resources while creating international economic agreements, effectively sidestepping the Canadian government, which will lead to wealth creation in communities.
While Nelson won’t win, he provides a critical and necessary perspective.
Finally, there is Bill Wilson, also a long shot. Wilson is Kwakwaka’wakw hereditary chief from Cape Mudge in British Columbia. While Wilson has been in politics longer than any of the other candidates, he’s been less active in recent years, working instead as a treaty negotiator and consultant.
Like Nelson, Wilson’s patience with the federal government has waned and he promotes a more provocative approach focusing primarily on enforcing and upholding treaties. He also expresses a commitment to addressing poverty, violence against women and substance abuse.
The race will likely be a close one between Beaucage and Atleo, with Bellegarde the wild card. But since the front-runners’ platforms are similar, the supposed new direction of the AFN is predictable – a rights-based approach with a heavy emphasis on economic development and wrestling more jurisdiction from Canada regarding citizenship, social policy and lands and resources.
Whatever the outcome, the new national chief will face challenges. While he will push for treaty rights, the government will seek to undermine them; while education is more critical than ever, funding is being cut. Above all, the new national chief will have to work very hard to ensure that the new AFN is not the same as the old AFN.