A new Assembly of First Nations for the people? Second thoughts on a ‘One Indian, One Vote’ AFN

Last month’s election for the Assembly of First Nations’ National Chief has once again stirred calls for change.

On election eve, for example, fellow MEDIA INDIGENA contributorWaubgeshig Rice published an op-ed on CBC.ca entitled, “How to make the AFN more relevant.” Then, in the midst of the election, authorRichard Wagamese wrote an opinion piece in the Globe and Mailentitled “We want an AFN of the people.” Both articles captured a broad sentiment among Ojibwe, Cree and Lakota peoples: a desire to participate in First Nations politics beyond the Band. Indeed, this AFN election garnered considerably more attention than any in the past, a clear testament to that desire for engagement. In both cases, Rice and Wagamese eloquently identify the problem — the Assembly’s issues with political representation (or lack thereof) — and a potential solution — in effect, a new “one Indian, one vote” AFN. But in considering this idea over the past few post-election weeks, I’m not so sure it’s the answer.

In the first place, such a new ‘AFN of the people’ could lead to an even more unhelpful pan-Indianism than the current AFN perpetuates. Despite working hard to keep Metis and Inuit peoples out (and avoiding Aboriginalism), as well as “respecting our diversity as First Nations peoples” (as noted under the AFN Charter), National Chiefs have nonetheless had a tendency to claim unity among First Nations. This presumes, or at least results in, a sort of homogeneity across nations, thereby stripping away our regional, cultural and political distinctions. (In reality, the only unity that probably exists among First Nations lies within our near unanimous resentment of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada). An AFN of the people would therefore see even more diversity disappear under one umbrella, both magnifying this perception of sameness and stretching the AFN to something far beyond what it could realistically represent. The result could be a general, simplistic, and generic voice.

Alternatively, instead of striving to represent everyone, an ‘AFN of the people’ could come to suffer from issues of skewed representation, specifically, an Assembly in danger of capture by particular interests. We already see this to an extent: First Nations who lobby for treaty rights versus those who lobby for Aboriginal rights. But the potential concern here is the growing urban First Nations population (more than half of us live outside our communities already). While urban peoples are in desperate need of political representation, their significant numbers could lead to an erosion of advocacy for the very communities AFN was created to serve, and who would still require an active and focused coordinating and lobbying organization into the future.

Moreover, an ‘AFN of the people’ would effectively endorse the structural conditions that currently bedevil the organization. In other words, and I say this without irony, a completely transformed AFN along one Indian, one vote lines would maintain the status quo. The AFN is a very bureaucratic, process-oriented organization, steeped in Western-inspired legal and policy discourse. It mimics Canadian electoral politics, voting by majority (often very slim majorities). And it’s funded nearly exclusively by Canada, rendering it subject to AANDC discipline. An ‘AFN of the people’ might placate Algonquin, Pottawatomi and Dene peoples, even convey empowerment, but it seems more likely that we’d merely entrench mediocrity and stasis.

Finally, an ‘AFN for the people’ would constitute a de facto new order of government, a move which would malign actual nations. And while we’re voting once every three years for a National Chief — a superficial conception of participation and democracy Canadians have come to accept — we might see ourselves forgetting about truly solving the problem of political representation. Of course, that would mean investing in the revitalization of authentic forms of Indigenous governance, e.g., the clan system, the potlatch, the Great Law, adapting them all as needed to contemporary circumstances. It would also mean getting involved in community and nation re-building. Not least, it would mean honoring our differences and re-establishing international relations and international confederacies between and among unique nations.

The thoughts expressed here are in no way an endorsement of the AFN in its current form. Like Rice and Wagamese, I think we do need change in a serious way. I also agree that we need an outlet for the desire for political engagement that’s so apparent among Mohawk, Wet’suwet’en and Maliseet peoples. While an option to directly vote for the AFN’s National Chief is appealing (reallyappealing), it could lead to more harm than good. In fact, the whole discussion makes me think about the Cleveland Indians or Washington Redskins; while they’re really bad images of Native people, they’re often the only representation that exists, so we find ourselves supporting images and icons like Chief Wahoo. But it’s probably time to start cheering for another team. Rather, to start playing for another, and in a whole different league.



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