Assembly of First Nations is out of touch and needs an overhaul, says ex-national chief

The AFN has become disconnected from the people it was created to represent and it needs a fundamental restructuring, says Noel Starblanket.

AFN is no longer an advocacy organization, says former senior official

Noel Starblanket, two-time national chief of the National Indian Brotherhood, said it's time for the Assembly of First Nations to change. (GoFundMe)

Noel Starblanket still remembers the meeting in Ottawa in 1980 at the Skyline Hotel, which laid part of the groundwork for the creation of the Assembly of First Nations (AFN).

At the time, the National Indian Brotherhood (NIB) was preparing to transform into the AFN, changing the organization from one comprising representatives from regional groups to one made up of First Nations chiefs.

"It was very difficult," Starblanket said. "You had the old guard, who didn't want to change, [and] you had the young leaders who said it's time to turn this into the national chiefs organization to reflect our people, to reflect the women, to reflect the young people's needs and desires." 

The movement toward the establishment of AFN began during the first national all-chiefs meeting in Montreal in 1978, and would culminate in 1982 during a meeting in Penticton, B.C., which elected David Ahenakew as the first AFN national chief.

As it heads into its election for national chief in Vancouver on Wednesday, the AFN stands at a crossroads, said Starblanket. Almost four decades later, he insists it has become disconnected from the people it was created to represent, and that it needs a fundamental restructuring.

Starblanket said the AFN executive, from the national chief to the regional chiefs, spend more time with the federal government than they do with the communities they represent.

"Those executives, they have become self-important. They just think about themselves and their political agenda," said Starblanket. "They don't think about the needs of the people at the First Nation level. They need to change that."

Some want voting changes

​Patrick Madahbee, a former Anishinabek Grand Council chief, retired this year after more than four decades in First Nations politics. 

Patrick Madahbee, former Anishinabek Nation grand council chief, says the AFN leadership should be elected by the people. (CBC)

Madahbee, who was a 27-year-old grand council chief at the 1980 Skyline Hotel meeting, said it's time for the AFN to modernize and change the way the leadership is selected.

"All our citizens should be choosing their leadership at every level in order to empower our people," he said. "Whether that will happen in the near future is the question. I don't think it will happen that quickly."

Rolland Pangowish, who worked as a senior official at AFN for about 15 years under four different national chiefs, said he joined the organization to make a difference. But over time, Pangowish said he has seen the AFN become a prisoner of the federal government's funding and policy priorities.

"It is very skewed in the government's favour," Pangowish said. "They manage the negotiations and set the rules."

He said that during his time at the AFN, internal work to chart new paths and models often fell victim to backroom deals between the national chief and Ottawa, which reflected the priorities of whoever occupied 24 Sussex at the time.

Prime Minister Joe Clark, right, chats with Noel Starblanket, left, then-president of the NIB, in the backyard at 24 Sussex Drive in 1979. (Rod MacIver/The Canadian Press)

The AFN is no longer an advocacy organization, he said. Instead, it is "stagnating" as a "policy consultation mechanism" for Ottawa.

Pangowish left the AFN in 2003, having been the director of the treaty and lands unit. When he returned home to Wikwemikong Unceded Indian Reserve in Ontario, he was surprised people no longer viewed the organization as their champion.

"There was more fear of what the AFN was going to do than a feeling it was representing the people," he said. "The organization should be folded and start again, building from the ground up."

Disconnect from grassroots, say activists

During his reelection campaign, incumbent AFN national chief Perry Bellegarde has presented an alternate picture, of an organization still moving the agenda of First Nations forward.

Bellegarde has said that under his leadership, the AFN secured about $17 billion in funding over seven years, pushed Ottawa to jointly draft an Indigenous languages bill and supported an NDP private members bill to harmonize Canada's laws with the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Rolland Pangowish worked at the AFN from 1988 to 2003 and believes the AFN needs to fold and start from scratch. (Submitted by Rolland Pangowish)

Bellegarde has said he also supports ongoing work to modernize the AFN, which could mean moving away from a regional structure based on provincial boundaries to one based on nations and treaty territories.

Shawn Brant, a Mohawk from Tyendinaga territory near Belleville, Ont., said too often, the AFN leadership abandons First Nations grassroots activists if they make Ottawa uncomfortable.

In December 2006, the AFN passed a resolution calling for a national day of action the following June 29. The Mohawks of Tyendinaga responded to the call, reclaimed a quarry and prepared to launch a three-pronged blockade of two highways, including Hwy 401 and a CN rail line.

As tensions mounted, then-AFN national chief Phil Fontaine struck a deal with the Harper government to create a tribunal to rule on historical claims. Terry Nelson, then-chief of Roseau River in Manitoba and the author of the motion, also struck a deal with Ottawa on the return of treaty lands.

By the time June 29 hit, only the Mohawks of Tyendinaga carried out any direct action, shutting down the rail lines and highways for about 11 hours.

Shawn Brant, a Mohawk from Tyendinaga, was part of a 2007 protest that shut down Highway 401 as part of a Day of Action near Deseronto, Ont. (Tom Hanson/Canadian Press)

"We lost an opportunity, because the AFN didn't step forward and use its leadership role. We could have stood people across the country in areas of economic importance and brought the economy to a grinding halt," said Brant. "We could have negotiated our place in society."

Splits over Idle No More

Brant said grassroots activists need to move beyond criticizing the organization and start holding it accountable because it could be a "powerful force."

He said joint negotiation-direct action tactics between chiefs and activists in 2010 led to First Nations in Ontario maintaining their tax exemption from the point-of-sale provincial portion of the HST.

One of the deepest splits to hit the AFN came as the Idle No More movement crested in January 2013 over a meeting with then-prime minister Stephen Harper.

At Ottawa's Delta Hotel (which used to be the Skyline) the evening before the Jan. 11 meeting, a large contingent of chiefs, backed by grassroots activists, called for the AFN to reject the planned meeting with Harper at the Office of the Privy Council building across from Parliament Hill.

Then-AFN national chief Shawn Atleo rejected the call and attended the meeting along with a handful of chiefs, including Jody Wilson-Raybould, who was regional chief for B.C. at the time, and is now justice minister.

Idle No More founder Sylvia McAdam says the AFN is disconnected from the people. (Craig Norris/CBC)

The move led to a fracture that widened after Atleo negotiated with the Harper government on a First Nations education bill. The internal debate over the bill grew so contentious it led to Atleo's resignation — the first by a national chief.

Sylvia McAdam, one of the founders of Idle No More, said grassroots activists would be willing to work with the AFN, but the right conditions don't exist at the moment.

"I think there is a huge disconnect," said McAdam. "I think the AFN has completely lost sight, has lost control over the agenda."

The AFN's 2018 annual general assembly begins July 24 at the Vancouver Convention Centre.

With files from Chantelle Bellrichard


Jorge Barrera is a Caracas-born, award-winning journalist who has worked across the country and internationally. He works for CBC's Indigenous unit based out of Ottawa. Follow him on Twitter @JorgeBarrera or email him