Can a new national chief make the AFN relevant?

As the Assembly of First Nations gears up to elect a new grand chief, Pamela Palmater questions "whether any of the candidates can radically transform the AFN to be relevant to both chiefs and grassroots First Nations citizens again."

'Gravely concerned about AFN's downward spiral,' says Pamela Palmater

Ghislain Picard, Perry Bellegarde and Leon Jourdaine are the contenders for the position of AFN National Chief. Voting takes place in Winnipeg on Dec. 10. (Chris Wattie/Reuters, Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press, Facebook)

The AFN is to elect a new national chief on Wednesday in Winnipeg — but the question is whether any of the candidates can radically transform the AFN to be relevant again to both chiefs and grassroots First Nations citizens.

The 2012 election was the one that First Nations citizens all over Canada paid the most attention to — as discontent over First Nation living conditions was on the rise. Eight candidates ran in the last election for national chief in 2012 — four men and four women.

Not only was this the largest number of candidates to run for national chief, but it was also the highest number of women candidates.

I was one of those grassroots candidates and had decided to run for national chief to make change at the AFN. My campaign was called "Our Way: Our Sovereignty, Our Land, Our People" and called for an emergency action plan to address the crisis issues in our communities, and to vigorously defend our sovereignty and jurisdiction.

After three rounds of voting, the incumbent Shawn Atleo won the election; but the chiefs were deeply divided. There was an obvious tension between the treaty provinces and non-treaty First Nations in British Columbia, and the divide between citizens and their leaders started to increase.

Some chiefs had hoped that Atleo could work with Prime Minister Stephen Harper and get Canada to restore funding, withdraw the suite of legislation, including the First Nations Education Act and the First Nations Financial Transparency Act. and "reset" the relationship. This didn't happen and the relationship between Canada and First Nations worsened.

In the months that followed Idle No More was born, there was talk of creating a separate political organization to represent Treaty First Nations and there were even calls to dissolve the AFN.

Atleo resigned after calls for his impeachment over his backroom deal with Harper to legislate the treaty right to education. As a result, the election for national chief this year will lead to a term of 3.5 years instead of the usual three years.

Still concerned

When the candidates list was published by AFN for this year's election and my name was not among them, people asked me why I did not run this time around.

My stepson, who is only 14 years old, has lived with cystic fibrosis his whole life. He had a double lung transplant in August. I made the personal decision not to run this time around because it was an accelerated election and it would have meant too much time away from my stepson during his recovery.

I will still attend the AFN assembly, because as a First Nation citizen, I am gravely concerned about AFN's downward spiral in recent years.

AFN's political positions, decisions and actions (or lack thereof) have profound impacts on First Nations in Canada — whether or not we participate in the AFN. AFN's $300 per person entry fee shows no consideration for impoverished communities or grassroots participation.

AFN’s failure to advocate strenuously for murdered and missing Indigenous women, the over-representation of First Nations in prison, the number of our children in foster care, and the extreme conditions of poverty in many of our communities, has disillusioned a great number of chiefs and First Nations' citizens.

AFN failure to aggressively oppose Harper's suite of First Nation legislation has resulted in individual First Nations having to file law suits at great cost and risk to their communities.

Despite the fact that there has been an acting national chief since Atleo's resignation, neither he, nor the AFN executive have stepped up to advocate for First Nations during this critical time.

Status quo candidates

When Saskatchewan Regional Chief Perry Bellegarde and Quebec Regional Chief Ghislain Picard indicated their intentions to run for national chief early on, this served to dissuade other potential candidates from running.

It was a clear indication that the status quo leaders were holding on to the AFN, and that the fundamental change needed to make it relevant again would not be possible.

In my opinion, Bellegarde has a troubled political history in Saskatchewan and lacks the support of his own chiefs from that region.

Picard is one of the longest serving AFN regional chiefs, but was there during the entire Atleo fiasco.

The third candidate, Leon Jordaine, has faced drunk driving and sexual assault charges in the past. The latter was dropped and he says he has turned his life around. 

But given this political backdrop, it is not surprising that there are no women running.

While Bellegarde was originally seen as the front runner, the tide seems to be shifting towards Picard, given his international experience.

But none of the candidates have an action plan to address Harper's paternalistic Indian agenda nor have they proposed how they will change the AFN itself.

The AFN's assembly agenda, which focuses on pipelines, education legislation, and a roundtable on murdered and missing indigenous women — instead of an inquiry — would seem to indicate that it is not ready for change yet.

No matter who they elect as chief on Wednesday, the best AFN might do is to start a dialogue or working group on changing AFN — which could take years.

Any hope for real change for indigenous Canada will have to come from First Nations leaders and grassroots citizens themselves.


Pamela Palmater is a Mi’kmaw lawyer, professor, author and social justice advocate who currently holds the position of Chair in Indigenous Governance at Ryerson University.


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