After Atleo, does the Assembly of First Nations serve any purpose?

The resignation on Friday of Shawn A-in-chut Atleo as Assembly of First Nations national chief marks a shift in indigenous politics in Canada. It is the manifestation of whatever Idle No More has become and a growing and sustained assertiveness – in a long history of resistance – of Dene, Lakota and Mi’qmaq peoples, among others. While some will lament this reality and raise concerns about the vacuum left in the wake of Mr. Atleo’s resignation, there are also reasons to greet the development with something akin to subdued hope for fundamental change.

First, the resignation seriously limits any moral authority the federal government might have assumed to push through the much-loathed Bill C-33: The First Nations Control of First Nations Education Act. With the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs’ aggressive posturing (essentially calling those who oppose the bill terrorists) paired with dissent from First Nations leaders representing a majority of on-reserve communities and debate from opposition parties, Mr. Atleo was the only remaining source of legitimacy.

When Bernard Valcourt called on the critics to “follow Shawn Atleo’s lead” he put the former leader in an unsustainable position with few choices given the proliferating awareness of the problematic features of the bill. Since there has already been revisions from the original First Nation Education Act, it will likely become law. But it seems clear that the unilateralism and paternalism characterizing the legislation – and federal Indian policy generally – will no longer be accepted.

Second, those who claim Idle No More quietly disappeared haven’t been paying attention. More than challenging Canadians, the movement was also about forcing First Nation leadership to answer to communities. And ever since the Jan. 11, 2013 meeting in Ottawa between Mr. Atleo and the Prime Minster – as protesters surrounded the building – the now-former national chief was considered by many in the Idle No More movement to be a sell-out. Scrutiny and criticism has been sustained over the past year and his resignation was the inevitable conclusion a perceived betrayal.

The fact that Mr. Atleo is the first national chief to resign from the AFN in the organization’s history reflects the growing power of community members. Credit to him is owed for responding. And while the politics of whatever Idle No More has become are divisive, as all politics among all people necessarily are, it does seem clear that the type being practiced independent of institutional arrangements is increasingly effective. Any organization claiming to represent indigenous peoples should expect skepticism, and more importantly, to be held accountable.

Third, and related, the AFN will be forced to reflect on its purpose. Following Mr. Atleo’s departure, the organization’s executive will take over until the broader chiefs-in-assembly decide what to do. They will likely appoint an interim leader this week, schedule an election and possibly re-instate the senate-like Confederacy of Nations to provide oversight of the executive. Amid all of this chiefs will re-visit the neglected campaign to renew the AFN. It will be the fifth attempt to have the discussion in the organization’s 30-year existence.

Past recommendations have remained static. There was the suggestion to allow individuals to vote in AFN elections, as opposed to strictly chiefs. There has been the call to reject federal funds, which many feel allows undue influence on the organization. Finally, some want to disband the pan-First Nation AFN all together in favour of coalescing around national organizations (Anishinaabe, Mushkego, Kanien’kehá:ka, etc), which would provide more genuine representation. Whichever direction potential renewal takes, unless there is serious movement, the AFN will continue its slide into irrelevance.

Underscoring all of this is the nature of band governance. Each of these recommendations requires the will of constituent chiefs. There is little indication they are committed, either struggling to create change in their own under-resourced and over-stretched local governments, or in contrast, accepting and protecting the limited power delegated by the Indian Act. But people are recognizing the need more authentic governance models and more legitimate leaders. Chiefs and councils, treaty and regional organizations would be wise to absorb the lessons of Mr. Atleo’s resignation.

Many will see these developments as the triumph of confrontation over conciliation. They won’t be wrong. But it is offensive to excuse the sentiment as belonging to “angry Indians” as if deference should be the common sense posture in the face of a continuing history of conflict. Instead, from the Idle No More movement through to the decline and perhaps disappearance of the AFN, and the ongoing imposition of paternalistic legislation, there is a refusal to accept this situation at all levels. The new politics of refusal will seek nothing less than wholesale transformation.