This blog represents my own personal opinions, thoughts and ideas, and should never be relied on as legal advice. My goal is have a national discussion with the grass roots citizens to see where we can affect the changes we want for our families, communities, and Nations. We owe it to our ancestors to protect our cultures and territories for our future generations.
*This article was originally published in The Lawyer's Daily on July 18, 2018.
Assembly of First Nations will hold its election for national chief on July 25
in Vancouver. Only the chiefs of the 634-plus First Nations are eligible to vote
but most chiefs’ assemblies see less than half of those attend, and of those,
many are proxies and not actual chiefs.
While elections for prime minister, premier and even mayors attract nightly political commentary, analysis and
predictions in the months and weeks prior to their elections, there is
generally very little commentary about the AFN election outside of Indigenous
media like APTN, Windspeaker or smaller Indigenous political blogs. Yet, what
is at stake in this election for First Nations should be of great concern to
This election feels more like a boiling point – a critical juncture
spurred by the growing discontent of the AFN that was apparent in the last
three AFN elections for National Chief. The outcome of this election could
change everything for the better or the worse and Canadians will be impacted
colonial reality of First Nations impoverished through the dispossession of
lands and resources, together with an aggressive and unrelenting assimilation
policy, forces leaders to make hard decisions in order to provide relief for
their people. Their own local elections depend on whether houses are built on
reserve to relieve the crisis-level over-crowding and homelessness or whether
there is access to safe drinking water and food to keep their children out of
The focus of local First Nation elections is often based on life
and death issues – a far cry from federal or provincial elections which tend to
focus on the best interests of the middle class, tax relief or international
trade. The AFN is well aware of this dynamic in First Nations and uses the fear
of losing critically needed social programs and services as a means to garner
support for federal policies – which in turn equate to more money for the AFN
itself. While everyone is aware of this dynamic, the need to provide for First
Nation citizens is often paramount.
First Nation leaders addressed their concerns privately, but the AFN’s drastic
departure from its original purpose as an advocacy organization risks the very
rights of First Nations, thus requiring the very public pushback we have seen
in recent years.
What is happening both before our eyes and behind closed doors
is an epic battle to protect First Nation sovereignty, lands and cultures. It
is a battle that seeks to frame reconciliation as more than the beads and
trinkets offered by the Trudeau government and one which aligns more with First
Nation constitutional and international rights.
This election will be a contest
between those who accept the federal government’s legislative framework agenda
in exchange for relatively minor (but desperately-needed) funding increases to
programs and services versus those who reject it, and demand the return of some
of their lands, a share in their natural resources, and the protection of their
sovereignty and jurisdiction. Either path will result in significant
consequences for First Nations. But make no mistake - there will be government
retaliation if the election choice is real reconciliation.
this is not a battle of their own making. Most of the divisions amongst First
Nations have been created and maintained by federal bureaucrats, who have
maintained their vise-like grip on the so-called “Indian agenda”. Even the
first few attempts at national political organizing among First Nations after
WWI and WWII were defeated by government interference.
While the National
Indian Brotherhood started out strong in defense of core First Nation rights
and title, more recent years as the re-named Assembly of First Nations have
seen a drastic decline in advocacy and a corresponding increase in the support
of federal agendas. While most of the federal pressure occurs behind the
scenes, the previous Conservative government wielded social program funding and
federal legislative power as a weapon to bludgeon any attempt to advocate for
First Nation rights. Former Prime Minister Harper’s government enacted a
historic amount of legislation against the will of First Nations and even
threatened to cut funding for “rogue chiefs” who dared challenge their
legislative agenda of increased federal control over First Nations.
Trudeau was elected on a promise to repeal all of Harper’s legislation, he
hasn’t done so – nor will he ever. He has his own legislative agenda designed
to build upon Harper’s increased legislative control of First Nation
governments by also limiting the scope and content of First Nation
constitutional rights and powers once-and-for-all.
The Trudeau government seeks
to define and limit the scope of First Nation rights and powers under section
35 of the Constitution Act, 1982 in
federal legislation under the guise of reconciliation. Therein lies the Trojan Horse
of Trudeau’s brand of reconciliation. Trudeau’s reconciliation, while flowery
and tearful, will result in the legal assimilation of First Nations into the
body politic. Something his father, former Prime Minister Pierre Elliot
Trudeau, tried to do with the 1969 White Paper on Indian Policy designed to get
rid of Indian status, reserves and treaty rights.
reconciliation - which is about addressing the wrongs of both the past and the
present - requires the transfer of lands and resources back to First Nations,
the sharing of the wealth made in First Nation territories and the full
recognition of First Nation sovereignty and jurisdiction (the right to be
self-determining). However, most Chiefs are acutely aware that although this is
the path that most honours our ancestors and coincides with our rights; it is
also the path with the most severe consquences. The path of retaliatory
reconciliation has always attracted the full force of Canadian law enforcement
and military power.
the Mi’kmaw Nation at Listuguj tried to manage their own fishery in the 1980’s,
they were brutally beaten and arrested by the Surete du Quebec (SQ) police. When
the Mohawks of Kanesetake tried to protect their traditional territory and
burial grounds from a golf course in 1990, the SQ, RCMP and military laid siege
to their territory for months.
In 1995, an unarmed land defender named Dudley
George was killed by Ontario police for protecting his reserve lands at
Ipperwash. In the same year, the RCMP launched the largest attack on ever on a
civilian population at Gustafsen Lake – all to prevent a small group of sun
dancers from performing their ceremonies on so-called Crown lands.
Even once the
Mi’kmaw Nation at Esgenoopetitj (Burnt Church) had proven their treaty right to
fish at the Supreme Court of Canada in 1999, the RCMP and DFO used brutal force
to stop the Mi’kmaw from fishing. Hundreds of RCMP SWAT forces were called out
to suppress the peaceful resistance of the Mi’kmaw Nation at Elsipogtog to hydro-fracking
on traditional lands.
Canada’s vision of reconciliation only works if First Nations don’t assert
their rights. First Nations are more than welcome to enjoy their pow-wows,
re-name streets in their languages or hang their art in public spaces, as acts
of multi-culturalism. But when it comes to asserting inherent, treaty or
constitutional Aboriginal rights and land title – that is where Trudeau’s
vision of reconciliation breaks down. One need only look at the arrests related
to protests against the Trudeau/Kinder Morgan Pipeline to know where real
reconciliation is headed.
Canadians should be very concerned about the actions
of their governments towards reconciliation and what this AFN election means
for the safety and well-being of Indigenous peoples moving forward. Afterall,
as beneficiaries of the treaties, Canadians have a role to play in addressing
historic and ongoing wrongs.
is no way to sugar coat what is at stake in this AFN election. A vote for Perry
Bellegarde is a vote down the rabbit hole of assimilation that looks eerily
like a pipeline. A vote for real reconciliation means First Nations will have
to brace for retaliatory impact – but this is the only path that will protect
our rights from voluntary erasure.
disclosure: I was the runner-up candidate in the AFN election 2012 to the former incumbent National Chief Shawn Atleo.
* The link to the original article published in The Lawyer's Daily:
I would like to refer you all to two very good articles written by Indigenous commentators on the AFN election. Both Niigaan and Doug are excellent writers and have a great deal of insight into First Nation political issues.
(1) "National chief election matters" written by Niigaan Sinclair for the Winnipeg Free Press on July 7, 2018: