Manitoba's grand chief is promising a new direction for Canada's First Nations — one that would not include the Indian Act or the Assembly of First Nations — at a gathering of chiefs taking place this week.
Grand Chief Derek Nepinak of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs is heading up the National Treaty Gathering on the Onion Lake Cree Nation in Saskatchewan, which could result in the creation of a breakaway group separate from the AFN.
Nepinak has been talking about forming the National Treaty Alliance, citing too much rhetoric and not enough action from the AFN on First Nations issues.
"As these institutions have become more politicized and more developed along bureaucratic lines, we've lost them," Nepinak said at the meeting Monday.
In a bold symbolic gesture, Nepinak threw his government-issued Indian status card into the trash — a sign of what he said he wants to do for First Nations people.
"This Indian Act card is done with me and I'm done with it," Nepinak said, before he stood up and tossed his card into a garbage can.
Currently, Canada's First Nations people are governed by the federal Indian Act, which was created in 1876. Under the act, a status Indian has rights to health, education, and tax exemptions for which other Canadians don't qualify.
But Nepinak said he no longer wants anything to do with the legislation.
"Do something with that Indian card but distance yourself from it as much as you can," he said.
"We need to recreate treaty cards and put our faith back in one another again. I think that's how we deconstruct the Indian Act."
Atleo calls for unity
At the Assembly of First Nations' meeting in Whitehorse, National Chief Shawn Atleo warned an audience of more than 200 chiefs on Tuesday that conditions for Canada's First Nations won't improve if they split into factions.
Atleo called for unity and told delegates that the AFN strives to respect the sovereignty of First Nations while "being careful not to overstep" its boundaries.
"Our agenda, the First Nations agenda, requires that everyone come together … just as Treaty 7 pulled First Nations together to deal with the rising water," he said, referring to the recent floods in Alberta.
A call for unity should not be confused with a call for assimilation or cultural hegemony, said Atleo, adding that the AFN supports individual nations negotiating treaty issues with the federal government.
Potential impact on treaty process
Some have expressed concern that having some chiefs split off into a new group could potentially hurt the treaty negotiation process.
"To create something separate and distinct from the AFN on treaty issues may result in a weakening of positions because not everyone will participate," said Aimee Craft, a lawyer in Winnipeg.
But Jamie Wilson, Manitoba's treaty commissioner, said Nepinak is prompting a much-needed dialogue about the state of Canada's treaties.
"We're talking about issues that a lot of people don't understand, and when there's a lack of understanding, there's a lot of prejudice," he said.
Wilson said treaties were signed between First Nations and the Crown to mutually benefit both groups, but those agreements have not been implemented.
A decision on whether a new breakaway group should be created is expected to be made later this week.