Incumbent AFN national chief faces rivals during final round of speeches
Perry Bellegarde's challengers take shots at cosy relationship with federal government
Perry Bellegarde, the incumbent national chief for the Assembly of First Nations, faced fire Tuesday from four opponents vying to replace him as the head of the largest and most influential Indigenous organization in the country.
Chiefs are set to vote Wednesday in Vancouver at the group's annual general assembly for the next national chief of the AFN.
Bellegarde — considered to be the front-runner — reached deep into his Prairie and treaty roots to fend off criticisms that the AFN has grown too close to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's Liberal government.
"We did not cede or surrender or relinquish title to the Crown," said Bellegarde in his speech. "The principle was peaceful coexistence and mutual respect between our people. But that's not what we see today."
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However, sensing the need to respond to complaints that the AFN is losing touch with its members, Bellegarde said he would hold a special chiefs' assembly to begin discussions on reforming the organization if re-elected.
"Our AFN has to be relevant to our people, it has to be responsive and it has to be respectful," said Bellegarde.
The AFN was created in 1982 to replace its predecessor, the National Indian Brotherhood.
All five candidates delivered 30-minute speeches to chiefs outlining their platforms and trying to sway the undecided.
Sheila North, a grand chief of Keewatinowi Okimakanak which represents 30 First Nation communities in northern Manitoba, is aiming to become the first woman to lead the AFN. She took a pointed shot at Bellegarde's perceived close relationship with the Trudeau government.
"We need a national chief who can sit at the table with the Liberals without becoming one," said North, a member of the Bunibonibee Cree Nation.
North also laid out her plans for her first 100 days as national chief which includes meetings in every region to set the priorities for the organization.
"It is time to change the system," said North. "Our strength is found in our traditions and our laws."
Miles Richardson, a former president of the Haida Nation, said that his experience fighting to assert the Haida Nation's sovereignty over its territory prepares him to take the fight to the national level.
Another candidate, Russ Diabo of Kahnawake in Quebec, said the organization had "strayed" from its principles and is now Ottawa's "cheerleader."
Diabo said he was the only choice for "transformative" change of the AFN. Diabo said First Nations people are at a key juncture in their history and chiefs needed to carefully choose who should lead the AFN during this period.
"If you vote for a status-quo candidate there will be repercussions," said Diabo. "But many of our people are watching this election and they want fundamental change."
Katherine Whitcloud, a former Manitoba regional chief of the AFN, focused her speech on the need to ground the organization in traditional and spiritual ways with a focus on the next generations.
"I heard a lot of talk about money, but it's never going to close the gap," said Whitecloud. "It's not about today, and it's not about winning tomorrow. It is about the life of our children and the life of our grandchildren."
AFN officials said there are more than 2,616 First Nations leaders, elders and youth registered to attend the annual general assembly.
Only chiefs of the AFN's 635 member communities or their proxies are allowed to vote for a new leader. As of Tuesday morning, a spokesperson for the AFN said 522 voting delegates had registered although that number could change as registration will remain open until the vote.
The AFN is a national lobby group tasked with advocating for First Nations according to direction from its members. Most often this involves lobbying the federal government on policy areas like health care, infrastructure, land and education.
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The AFN is not a government and is separate from the nation-to-nation relationship between Ottawa and individual First Nations.
The assembly receives its funding from the federal government, the majority of which comes from Indigenous Affairs. That increased from $13 million in the fiscal year ending in 2016 to $32 million for 2018, according to figures presented to the conference Tuesday morning.