Tensions between the Assembly of First Nations and some chiefs who are feeling excluded could boil over next month at a meeting where a new breakaway organization could be born.
The National Treaty Gathering at Onion Lake, Sask., is taking place July 14 to 18, at the same time the AFN is having its annual meeting in Whitehorse. People will have to choose which meeting they want to attend.
Chief Delbert Wapass, of Thunderchild First Nation in Saskatchewan, plans to attend the Onion Lake meeting and says he's excited about what it might produce.
"I know it will be something great. Everybody should be there as far as I'm concerned," he said in an interview. Wapass said he has some concerns with the AFN, particularly when it comes to trust.
"If the AFN is not stepping up and defending our rights, we have to," said Wapass.
The annual National Treaty Gathering usually attracts about 800 people. Organizers of the Idle No More protest movement have also been invited to attend this year.
A copy of the agenda shows that Grand Chief Derek Nepinak, from the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, will make a presentation on the idea of a new group currently being referred to as the National Treaty Alliance.
He will outline a proposed mission and vision statement, membership and other components, and then it will be up to attendees to discuss and debate the idea.
'I think indigenous people across the country stand firm on recognizing that change needs to happen.' — Grand Chief Derek Nepinak, Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs
Nepinak said in an interview with the CBC's Julie Van Dusen that he won't speculate on the outcome of the meeting. He said he wants to see dialogue that will especially include consultation with the elders.
"It's going to come out with a strong voice for sure," he said about the meeting.
Nepinak said he has respect for the AFN and National Chief Shawn Atleo, but that in the past few years there has been too much rhetoric and not enough action.
Chiefs want focus on treaty agreements
One of his main concerns is the implementation of treaty agreements with the Crown, and he said many problems such as housing conditions and revenue sharing for natural resources stem from a failure to adhere to agreements.
He wants treaty agreements to be front and centre of discussions with the federal government and is worried that too often the issue gets folded in with other items on the agenda when Atleo meets with Prime Minister Stephen Harper. There is a general sense of feeling excluded and not being listened to, as the Idle No More protest movement demonstrated, and Nepinak said people are eager to get involved.
"We have to get past those political power vacuums that we've allowed to persist for too long, where very few people are allowed to share their ideas and their perspectives on what we need to do to move past the difficulties we face," he said.
Forming a new organization will be one option on the table, and Nepinak said whether it happens will be up to people at Onion Lake to decide.
"I think indigenous people across the country stand firm on recognizing that change needs to happen," he said.
Chief Lynn Acoose from the Sakimay First Nation in Saskatchewan said Atleo has been at the helm of the AFN at a difficult time.
"We've been waiting for things to change," she said.
Atleo met with Harper on June 20, and according to Harper's office they discussed what progress has been made since their Jan. 11 meeting. Treaty relationships were a main topic of conversation and so was education.
Atleo said he pressed Harper for clarity on commitments to treaty implementation and on timelines.
The meeting at Harper's office was not publicized, and the Prime Minister's Office only provided details about it after the media found out and asked for them.
Chief Okimaw Wallace Fox of the Onion Lake Cree Nation said he and other chiefs were not happy the AFN did not advise them of Atleo's meeting with the prime minister.
"What kind of leadership is that?" Fox told CBC News.
"We want to be included, our people's voices need to be heard, leadership needs to be heard and respected," he said.
On National Aboriginal Day on June 21, about 150 people marched from Victoria Island in the Ottawa River, where Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence held her protest hunger fast, to Parliament Hill. Some participants said the march was the beginning of a "Sovereignty Summer" that will feature a series of events.