Future of AFN, promised Indigenous rights bill flashpoints in national chief election
5 candidates in race which ends in July at annual general assembly in Vancouver
The Assembly of First Nations race for national chief began officially on Wednesday and at stake for some candidates is the very future of the largest Indigenous organization in the country.
Five candidates, including incumbent National Chief Perry Bellegarde, are vying to lead the AFN at a time when it faces a flurry of legislative activity from the Justin Trudeau Liberal government, including a proposed bill to recognize Indigenous rights.
The nomination deadline for candidates was 11:59 a.m. on June 19.
The vote for national chief is scheduled for July 25 in Vancouver during the organization's annual general assembly. The national chief is elected by member First Nations chiefs or their designated representatives.
The candidate to first capture 60 per cent of the vote is the declared the winner. If a candidate does not hit the magic number, successive votes are held until a winner is declared.
There are 640 member First Nations of the AFN.
During the campaign, Bellegarde remains as the spokesperson for the AFN. New Brunswick regional Chief Roger Augustine, a supporter of Bellegarde's, will take over the financial and administrative duties of the national chief's office in the interim.
Bellegarde won his first national chief election on the first ballot during a December 2014 vote in Winnipeg.
The AFN held an early election that year after former AFN national chief Shawn Atleo resigned over controversy triggered by the previous Conservative government's planned bill on First Nations education.
AFN criticized for losing touch
Bellegarde, from Little Black Bear First Nation in Saskatchewan, was the only one of the five candidates not available for an interview Wednesday.
Three of the five candidates said they were running partly because the AFN has lost touch with the grassroots and is overstepping its decision-making power by hewing too closely with the agenda set by Ottawa.
"It has become very colonized and it needs to go back to the original intent for why it was established," said candidate Katherine Whitecloud, a former chief and AFN CEO from Wipazoka Wakpa Dakota Nation in Manitoba.
"Right now we are using a language and legal construct that are foreign and confusing to our old people, for many of our people," she said.
Candidate Sheila North, from Bunibonibee Cree Nation and grand chief of Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak, said the AFN has failed to properly advocate for First Nations on issues like education and the legalization of marijuana.
"I think it's time to bring the voices of our sovereign nations closer to the forefront when we are talking about decision-making for our people," said North.
"We need a different direction, we need a new AFN that responds to the needs of our communities on the ground," she said.
Candidate Russ Diabo, a well-known policy analyst from the Mohawk community of Kahnawake in Quebec, said the AFN has held hands with Ottawa as it moves to "terminate" Indigenous rights.
"The AFN lost control of our rights agenda. The process is driven by the federal government," said Diabo.
"(Ottawa) is going to use fiscal policies to force us into accepting their definition of rights.... It's a threat. It's implementing the objectives of the White Paper in 1969 from father to son."
Rights agenda a flashpoint
Former prime minister Pierre Trudeau's government proposed through the White Paper to erase the distinct status for Indigenous Peoples.
Following intense lobbying from Indigenous leaders at the dawn of the 1980s, section 35 of the Constitution, which recognized Indigenous rights, was inserted under the elder Trudeau's Constitution Act of 1982.
In February, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced his government would be tabling a bill creating a framework to recognize section 35 rights in federal law.
Diabo, North and Whitecloud all criticized the promised bill as being too much a creature of Ottawa's creation and the issue is becoming a flashpoint in the unfolding election.
Ottawa has said the bill has not been drafted yet but will be molded by input from First Nations. The Trudeau government plans to table the bill in the fall and pass it before the next election.
Bellegarde has been criticized over his perceived support for the planned bill. The incumbent has said in previous interviews that there is nothing to criticize because the bill hasn't yet been written.
Candidate Miles Richardson, a former president of the Haida Nation, seems to be most closely aligned with Bellegarde's positions.
Richardson said First Nations need to "embrace" the opportunity presented by Ottawa to establish a new nation-to-nation relationship.
"But we need to lead the process and have the federal recognition legislation be the federal side of our continuing and ancient rights," said Richardson, who is an Officer of the Order of Canada.
Candidates hitting the road
Richardson's main criticism of the AFN is that it has been too "reactive" to Ottawa's moves and instead should set the tempo for change.
"The AFN is an important national Indigenous institution and it needs to understand what its role is," he said.
"That role is in supporting and helping to build capacity for each nation to address their title and treaty rights as they see it in their territories."
The race is now on.