The Assembly of First Nations will likely remain leaderless until fall when an election is held for a new national chief.

The sudden resignation of Shawn Atleo last week has left the First Nations Education Act in limbo and has many speculating on the future of this 32-year-old organization.

Arthur Manuel — a First Nations leader from British Columbia, whose father founded AFN precursor the National Indian Brotherhood — said the AFN has drifted too far from the roots as a lobbying and advocacy organization.

"Are they going to continue to work hand in hand and cooperatively with Canadian government?” said Manuel. “Or are they going to resolve that they're going to fight for the self-determination of indigenous people across this country?"

Hayden King

Hayden King was surprised at Atleo’s resignation, but thinks it signals something deeper than division around the FNEA. (Hayden King)

Hayden King, an assistant professor of politics at Ryerson University and a member of the Beausoleil First Nation in southwestern Ontario, says the AFN is "certainly struggling with it’s identity."

"It’s really difficult for this org to to try to represent diversity of interests that exists across the country among First Nations peoples," said King.

"There are communities that are lobbying for treaty rights, communities that don’t want treaties … urban communities, northerners … the pan-Indian First Nation politics of the AFN aren’t working anymore."

King was surprised at Atleo’s resignation, but thinks it signals something deeper than division around the First Nations Education Act.

"[I am] more likely to say this is just a consequence of diversity and the inability of any national chief to represent such a wide array of people," King said. 

Division among First Nation leaders on role of AFN

Vicki Monague is a band councillor with the Beausoleil First Nation in southwestern Ontario, and mother of three children who attend a school on reserve.

She’s been following the developments on the First Nations Education Act very carefully, and for her it is not just about the content of the proposed bill. It's whether AFN has overstepped its advocacy role.

Vicki Montague

Vicki Montague would like to see the dissolution of the Assembly of National Chiefs. (Twitter.om)

“It appears that AFN has endorsed the act under the leadership of Atleo without actually having a resolution to have that mandate," she said. 

"I am concerned that my inherent rights are being negotiated away by the AFN, when the charter of the AFN clearly states that AFN is subordinate to individual First Nations of Canada … all  633 of them.”

Grand Chief Doug Kelly, a leader with the Sto:lo Tribal Council in British Columbia and the Chair of the First Nations Health Council, doesn’t agree with Monague.

“Atleo did the job that Atleo was given … If people have issues with the current text then it’s on us as leaders to consider and propose amendments to the legislation," Kelly said. 

Monague said that the debate around the FNEA has called more grassroots attention to the role of the AFN — and has more and more community members wanting a voice in decision making. Currently only First Nations chiefs vote for the national chief. But individual members are demanding to have a say.

That’s something that Kelly said he’s not opposed to.

“I have, in many assemblies, been one of the only leaders that has stood up and supported the concept of opening up voting of elections of national chiefs, to our citizens … other chiefs in Canada are not prepared to support that movement.”

But Montague is calling for an end to the AFN altogether.

“I think that [negotiation] needs to be done on a First Nation to Nation basis. We can not leave it to regional and federal organizations to negotiate on behalf of our communities," she said. 

'A decision that’s made is undone by angry vocal critics, and it causes fear in the exec of AFN, and we’re are dead in the water'- Grand Chief Doug Kelly

Kelly disagrees. “We need a national advocacy organization but what we need is a disciplined voice... that the decision means something.”

“Where we are today with AFN — a decision that’s made is undone by angry vocal critics, and it causes fear in the exec of AFN, and we’re are dead in the water.” Kelly thinks the next months will be very telling on whether or not AFN will continue.

The AFN will hold a special chiefs assembly in Ottawa at the end of the month to discuss the First Nations Education Act.

'I think Canadians and the federal government is asking a little bit too much to have one voice speak for all native people.'- Hayden King

It remains to be seen how the AFN will emerge from this controversy but regardless, King thinks that First Nations politics are in “an era of transformation,” and that could mean change for all Canadians.

"I think Canadians and the federal government is asking a little bit too much to have one voice speak for all native people … people are going to have to wrap their heads around the fact that native people … speak with more than one voice."

With files from The Current