After AFN national chief election, apathy and resignation remain (co-authored with Vanessa Watts)

This week in Vancouver, Chiefs at the Assembly of First Nations re-elected Perry Bellegarde to a second term. With the complexity and confusion of First Nation politics generally, Mr. Bellegarde earning the sixty per cent of votes required on the second ballot should be considered significant support. Chiefs, it seems, have endorsed Mr. Bellegarde’s reconciliatory politics, and by extension, Liberal visions of the nation-to-nation relationship.

This year’s election of the National Chief for the Assembly of First Nations was in many ways reminiscent of previous AFN elections, with a focus on treaties, sovereignty and land: the First Nation equivalent of “jobs, jobs and jobs.” But there was also a familiar critique: The AFN leadership is too closely aligned with the Liberals, and too out of touch with the people.

Candidates Russ Diabo – who is on the Yellowhead Institute’s advisory board – andSheila North Wilson in particular emphasized this point throughout the campaign, the latter telling the Assembly, “We need a national chief who can sit at the table with the Liberals without becoming one.”

This alignment with Canadian government and subsequent critique has been an increasing trend since the AFN’s founding in 1982. The previous National Chief, Shawn Atleo, was forced to step down as a result of community pressure after working too closely with Stephen Harper.

At this point, discussions among First Nation citizens about the AFN now seem to oscillate between apathy and resignation. Ideas on restructuring the organization to make it more accountable to citizens barely register. Old proposals for the AFN’s long-overdue modernization are only half-heartedly recycled. Meanwhile, the demand for a universal vote allowing individuals, and not just Chiefs, to select the AFN leader gets little traction. There is growing sentiment that the AFN and citizens are approaching an impasse.

This is not to say the organization hasn’t made some gains in recent years.

Mr. Bellegarde’s first term coincided with the election of a Prime Minister eager to make real change on First Nation issues. So there are lot more meetings with cabinet (even a memorandum of understanding to institutionalize an AFN-Canada meeting schedule), and with it more resources. Not only for communities, water quality on reserves and child welfare reform, but for the organization itself: Under Harper governments, AFN funding hovered at around $9-million. The 2018 budget is $32-million.

These are important developments considering the pressures on elected bandcouncil chiefs tasked with finding answers to the needs in their communities, from safe housing to fire and rescue services to employment opportunities.

The election, then, demonstrates a delicate balancing act between calls for sovereignty, diplomacy and appeasement, and addressing inequities back home (there is little room in the federal budget for criticism).

But even when these gains are measured against losses, the AFN is still in the hole.

Consider the concept of self-determination, championed in the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (1996). Originally a collective goal for First Nations to escape colonial policy and centre Indigenous governance systems with expansive jurisdiction, self-determination is increasingly lauded by the AFN as the vehicle for individual band management of by-law style government, and a source of authority by which to participate more fully in resource extraction.

Indeed, the Liberal government’s drafted self-government legislation, expected before the next federal election, seems to reflect this articulation. Somehow, self-determination has become replaced with Indian Act-style hopes and dreams. Somehow, sovereignty has become an echo of the thousand paper cuts of federal Indian policy and programming.

Yet, 60 per cent of Chiefs voted for it.

Like the Indian Act or the Band Council model, the AFN is ultimately a product of our colonial relationship with the state. While it was originally conceived to challenge that relationship, times have changed. As an advocacy organization built from the ground up to hold the state accountable for its relentless machinations against First Nations authority and sovereignty, the AFN now seems to run interference for the state.

This is the impossible reconciliation First Nation citizens are forced to make every time the AFN holds an election.