One community, one vote: the race is on!

The Assembly of First Nations (AFN) holds elections for the position of National Chief every three years.  As you may or may not be aware, this is an election year, and one that is gearing up to be an exciting race indeed!

In the spirit of providing some background information so I can more easily jump into discussing election hijinks over tea, I thought now would be a great time to delve into a primer on the AFN.

The short history of legal indigenous political participation

Native peoples in Canada were not new to politicking pre-Contact, not by a long shot.  This ability, and the structures within which we governed ourselves and mediated our relationships with other peoples were specifically targeted and eroded by colonial powers, such as the 1927 amendment to the Indian Act which was essentially an all-out ban on Indian political organisation (PDF).

Attempts were made after WWI, during the interwar period, and then again after WWII to create a nation-wide political organisation that represented First Nation interests.  Legal prohibitions and political repression (described in detail in that link above) pretty much guaranteed these efforts failed miserably.

The AFN as we know it now, was created out of the ashes of the National Indian Brotherhood in 1982.

So it is important to understand that the history of legal First Nations political participation in Canada has been very short indeed.  A great many people would argue that legal or not, colonial interference continues to undermine that political participation.

You can read more about the progression on the AFN website, but in short, an organisation that can claim (rightly or not) to represent all First Nations in Canada did not really start operating until 1982.

The first National Chief of the AFN, and the First Minister Conferences

There had been Chiefs of AFN’s precursor, the National Indian Brotherhood (NIB), and I don’t want to minimise their role.

Founding Chief of the NIB, 1968-1970.

Walter Dieter (Cree) was the NIB’s first Chief in 1968, and before that the head of the  Federation of Saskatchewan Indians, which has the distinction of being one of the first native organisations in Canada to receive funding. George Manuel (Shuswap), Noel Starblanket (Cree), Delbert Riley (Chippewa) all led the NIB until it became the Assembly of First Nations with David Ahenakew (Cree) as its national Chief in 1982.

David Ahenakew (right) in 1975.

Although Ahenakew achieved widespread notoriety in his later years, he was among the first indigenous leaders in Canada to finally be included in Constitutional discussions that actively impacted native peoples.  Four First Minister’s Conferences that focused on “Aboriginal Constitutional Matters” were held during the 80s (for a breakdown of ALL FMCs, here is a detailed PDF).  Since aboriginal rights had become entrenched in the Constitution Act of 1982, federal and provincial leaders wanted to suss out the scope of indigenous rights and for once in Canadian history, actually included the subjects in the discussions.

That’s not to say anything was solved, mind you. However, indigenous political organisation had come a long way, baby.

Love ’em or hate ’em, they’ve become iconic.

Georges Erasmus, AFN Chief 1985-1991, "Deal with us now or suffer the consequences!"

Georges Erasmus (Dene), upon being elected for a second term as National Chief, gave a speech, pretty much predicting the Oka Crisis:

“Canada, if you do not deal with this generation of leaders and seek peaceful solutions, then we cannot promise that you are going to like the kind of violent political action that we can just about guarantee the next generation is going to bring to you.”

Ovide Mercredi, Nation Chief from 1990-1997.

After him, Ovide Mercredi (Cree, and a strong advocate of non-violence) led the AFN in Constitutional talks in Charlottetown, pushing for recognition that indigenous self-government is an inherent right.  The Charlottetown Accord, unlike the Meech Lake Accord before it, included indigenous political organisations, but ultimately failed to address First Nation concerns.

Phil Fontaine, National Chief from 1997-2000, then again in 2003-2009.

Phil Fontaine (Ojibway) was involved in the Kelowna Accord negotiations, and spoke publicly about his experiences in Residential School, eventually helping to negotiate the Indian Residential Schools Agreement.  He received a formal apology for the Indian Residential School system from Stephen Harper in the House of Commons.


National Chief from 2000-2003.

Matthew Coon Come (Cree) ousted Phil Fontaine in 2000 (losing to him in 2003), and wanted to take a more adversarial approach to relations with the Canadian government.  Coon Come is a veteran of the decades old struggle of the James Bay Cree of Eeyou Istchee to be consulted and listened to in regards to hydroelectric development in their territory.  He rejected the First Nations Governance Act, which was intended to reform the Indian Act, but was widely criticised as being just as paternalistic.

The incumbent Chief

National Chief since 2009, Shawn Atleo, up for re-election this year.

Shawn Atleo (Nuu-chah-nulth) is currently the AFN National Chief, and his term has been marked by a decidedly more cooperative relationship with the federal government.  Nonetheless, he’s enjoyed fairly strong support for his diplomatic approach.

Now, before I get into who National Chief Atleo is up against this election, I want to clarify the scope of the AFN a little.

Who does the AFN represent, and who can vote for a National Chief?

The AFN, as the name suggests, represents First Nations.  There are other political organisations that represent the Inuit and Métis.  However, the AFN is not merely representing individual First Nations people, but rather the communities as a whole…over 630 of them throughout Canada.

Although it is possible for non-Status Indians to live on reserve, it is fair to say that the AFN mainly represents Status Indians.  Each First Nation is given a seat on the First Nations-in-Assembly, and that position is filled by the Chief of each First Nation (or a representative).

Thus individual First Nations people do not vote for the National Chief.  Instead, the Chiefs of each First Nation community are given one vote.  One community, one vote.

Joan Jack (Ojibwe) of Berens First Nation is running for National Chief.

The AFN does not represent me or any other Métis person, but I nonetheless have a keen interest in the outcome.  Canadians cannot vote for the President of the United States, yet these elections obviously have an impact on Canadian people. I feel that the same is true of the AFN when it comes to the way these elections influence the political climate all native peoples have to deal with in Canada.


And in this corner we have…

Ellen Gabriel is Mohawk from Kanesatake and has announced her candidacy.

You may have noticed that to date, every single AFN Chief has been male…and a large percentage have been Cree.  Well this year, there are no less than three female candidates running against the incumbent Chief, and nominations don’t close until June 12!

This isn’t the kind of election where people are going to be spending millions of dollars campaigning, but running for National Chief is still far out of reach of the average First Nations person as Richard Wagamese recently demonstrated in an excellent article last week.  Just tossing your hat in the ring means you’ve got the signature of 15 First Nation Chiefs, eight of which have to be from a province or territory outside of where you come from.  To win, you’ve got to get 60% of the votes, which can take a while when the votes are split between many candidates.

Pam Palmater (Mi'kmaq) has captured the imagination of many online First Nations netizens.

Perhaps most surprising this year is the candidacy of Pam Palmater, lately described in the media as ‘anti-establishment’ and certainly a long-time critic of the AFN.

It will be an interesting race, and we’ve already seen the stirrings of some nastiness as Senator Patrick Brazeau lashed out at Pam Palmater via Twitter, insinuating over the course of a few comments that perhaps she isn’t “Indian enough” to be National Chief.

Patrick Brazeau accuses Pam Palmater of being "Metis" (not really Indian), suggesting that perhaps she isn't eligible to be National Chief.

Regardless of who becomes National Chief, (and whether or not we finally get a woman in there) the winner of this race is going to face some serious challenges.  In April of this year, the AFN lost 40% of its funding when Health Canada pulled $15 million from dozens of aboriginal organisations.  The new (or returning) National Chief will not have an easy time of it with such a drastic funding withdrawal.  As well,  the Harper government has raised the considerable ire of a broad section of native groups by spying on indigenous professionals, native organisations and pipeline critics.  This, coupled with Harper’s penchant for economically destroying indigenous organisations (such as the National Aboriginal Health Organisation and Sisters in Spirit) has not convinced everyone that a cooperative approach is bearing edible fruit.

So keep your ears open and your eyes peeled…July 18th is going to be an interesting day no matter how it turns out!

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5 Responses to One community, one vote: the race is on!

  1. Khelsilam says:

    You missed a few points.

    Political organizing WAS existant in British Columbia during the McKenna McBride Commission. They were called the Allied Tribes of BC. After that there was the Native Brotherhood of British Columbia. A group broke off from that to form the National Indian Brotherhood, which as you mentioned, became the AFN.

    Also, how can you state Shawn has “…enjoyed fairly strong support for his diplomatic approach”. He eeked out a small victory last election after a 23 hours election. On top of that, some Provincial First Nation’s organization have out-right spoken against initiative Shawn has championed (Like the joint AFN-AANDC Education Panel).

    Just a few points that I noticed. Otherwise, good article to cover who the AFN is.

    • There were a number of different regional organisations around pre-NIB, but going into that would have taken up more time in an already long article 😀 I wanted to focus on the creation of an organisation that purports to represent all First Nations. Shawn Atleo’s election is not the same thing as what he’s done since he became elected…I tend to hang around people who are fairly critical of the National Chief and the AFN in general, but I also work with a fair number of people who do support him. I do think the support he has IS strong, and that those running against him are going to have to really bring forth compelling platforms. I don’t know, maybe I’m wrong…but I remember a lot more heated talk surrounding certain former AFN Chiefs than I’ve seen during Atleo’s term.

      The time for tough talk and finger wagging is now…we’re going some interesting things in the days to come I think. Me, I’m going to hunker down on the sidelines and hope the stones fly overhead!

  2. steve julian says:

    We can’t be judged by the company we keep, but if we were, Atleo would could do bette than to have Senator Brazeau speaking up for him. I remember the last AFN election and it wasn’t really and election, but a marathon of who would stay awake to vote. In any case Atleo is wrong on his approach of abandoning the Rights of FN’s. Even if he does have a “good” relationship with the government, that does not mean that FN’s will benefit in the communities. I do think the Women in the race are going to have a hard go, it is a male dominated arena. Regardless of what people say, they are afraid of change. Women in AFN will result in change. Palmater will be like Ovide or Matthew; a hard line against the status quo; and where did that get them? The Fed’s by-passed them and dealt with regional organizations. Effectively killing the national voice. Hopefully Chiefs know better than to fall for that old trick ;).

  3. Daniel David says:

    Excellent overview of the AFN, an organization that represented provincial territorial organizations and morphed into an organization of chiefs or band councils. The major problems became a combination of semantics and myth that allowed chiefs and band councils to pretend that the obvious isn’t true. That they are expected by Ottawa to carry out federal policy. Those who do it well are rewarded with more secure if not more funding. Those who don’t get nickled and dimed while their communities and peoples suffer. Talk about reform is ridiculous unless and until that fundamental problem is first admitted, then confronted.

    Someone may correct me, but I believe that Marilyn Buffalo of Alberta ran for national chief of the AFN against Phil Fontaine but not a single one of her signatories voted for her. This, if true, shows the astounding hypocrisy of some perhaps many chiefs who claim to be principled but jettison them when offered a reward for going the other way.

    As for this year’s crop of female candidates, I hope they make a difference. But the “old boys club” is very real and present at the AFN. It’s about regions and constituencies, rewards and patronage. None of the female candidates, ecept perhaps for the woman from Manitoba, can claim anything like a constituency. Their chances come down to bleak numbers. BC has more votes than any other province.

    The question is whether any candidate can attract enough chiefs from the other parts of the country to be able to challenge the home-town boy. Right now, BC is a weird place that seems to be steering toward quick deals rather than seven generations. It’s going to be a bumpy ride for the rest of the pack who offer little more than blood and toil and sweat and tears.

  4. Pingback: Ovide Mercredi | Canadian History

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