British Columbia

Does the AFN need an overhaul? Leaders say it needs to represent all First Nations people, not just chiefs

Now that the race for the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations is over and Perry Bellegarde has been re-elected, some leaders and candidates are calling for change within the organization.

AFN needs to be more relevant to urban and grassroots Indigenous people, say critics

Khelsilem is the spokesperson for the Squamish nation and voted in the election. He, like others, feels the AFN needs structural changes to be more inclusive to urban and grassroots Indigenous people and women. (Angela Sterritt )

Now that the race for the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations is over and Perry Bellegarde has been re-elected, some leaders and candidates are calling for change within the organization. 

Critics argue the person elected to head the AFN tends to only reflect the views of the chiefs who do the voting, rather than Indigenous population as a whole, including those who live in urban centres. 

Khelsilem is spokesperson for the Squamish Nation and voted in the election in place of a chief. 

Urban representation lagging

"For people who live in the urban centres, the AFN doesn't really play a huge role and so a lot of those people are disenfranchised from a voice in a lot of the bigger discussions," Khelsilem said. 

"Unfortunately, I mean the way that the AFN is structured, it doesn't reach the everyday [First Nations] person," Khelsilem said.

Khelsilem delivering a speech on opening day at the convention for the Assembly of First Nations annual general meeting. In his speech he said 'disagreement does not mean rejection, we are diverse just like our ancestors, but when we come together we are stronger.' (Angela Sterritt)

While issues such as resource extraction or on-reserve discrimination may be top of mind for the AFN, other topics such as homelessness or affordable housing in the city, often get pushed to the back burner. 

Khelsilem says because of the the AFN's focus on reserves, it's critical for the national chief to advocate for the needs of urban Indigenous people.  

Khelsilem says he voted for Sheila North, who would have been the first woman elected as chief in the national organization.  

Only elected band council chiefs or their proxies are able to vote for the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations. This year, about 550 people voted even though there are hundreds of thousands of First Nations people of voting age in Canada.  

Russ Diabo, a policy analyst from Kahnawake who was one of the AFN national chief candidates, says a complete overhaul of the AFN is needed. 

"I think it needs to change from top to bottom," Diabo said.

"Representation by population is a big issue. Why should one band with 50 or 100 people have the same weight in voting as somebody with 10,000?" he said. 

Sheila North was one of two women candidates vying for the position of national chief of the Assembly of First Nations. She would have been the first woman elected chief in the organization. (Angela Sterritt/CBC)

National chief candidate North defended the voting protocol, saying it is similar to federal politics. 

"We don't vote directly for the prime minister, we go to the representatives in each region, and then they provide dialogue to the regions [to decide]," North said. 

However, most bands or reserves are in rural areas, while a growing number of Indigenous people live in cities.

Last year, the AFN passed a resolution calling on the federal government to extend its Urban Aboriginal Strategy and restore funding to $51 million per year.

The resolution also directed the AFN to advocate for a nation-to-nation relationship between the Crown and First Nations to ensure the needs of First Nations are met, regardless of residency. 

Candidate Miles Richardson said voting needs to be open to grassroots leaders and those leading traditional governments, rather than just band councils.

'We need to be inclusive'

"We have grassroots people who feel alienated from decision making, we have traditional governments and hereditary systems that feel alienated, and they have been," Richardson said. 

"We need to be inclusive," he added.

For those like Khelsilem who see the merits of an organization with room to grow, the time for change is now. 

"As a nation we need to include all people, and that's a struggle and a challenge that first nations need to rise to." 

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