The Assembly of First Nations (AFN) leader, Shawn Atleo has resigned. And with it, comes more questions about the process, who it advocates for, and where it receives its legitimacy. The deluge of comments in regards to the Atleo’s political move can be attributed to inherent differences within First Nations themselves; not only within the political elite, but also with grassroots band members and of course-mainstream Canadians.
Director of Indigenous Inclusion at the University of Winnipeg, Wab Kinew believes that as a First Nations political entity; the AFN should not be dissolved. Kinew writes in the Huffington Post on May 8, 2014 “… (The AFN) has been instrumental in seeking justice for Residential School Survivors and fighting for Aboriginal and Treaty Rights. That is not a legacy to be discarded.”
Kinew is a lonely voice in the wilderness, and according to the First Nation (FN) grassroots membership, Chiefs and Idle No More (INM) activists, such as Russell Diablo, and Pam Palmater; the AFN is done…like dinner. Atleo’s support of Bill C-33 became an irreconcilable circumstance in which FN leaders and activists could no longer acknowledge, “… (he) has been more concerned with keeping Ottawa happy than with representing the aspirations of First Nations people.”-INM.The AFN as a political body, receives its core funding from the federal government. Its ability to distances itself from political pressure from the Harper government has proven to be very unsuccessful. Arthur Manuel is adamant that the AFN dissolve, “…it is an organization that serves Ottawa and is controlled by Ottawa's funding. Only a real movement of the people can fill the vacuum of leadership among First Nations, and I hope Shawn Atleo's departure will allow that kind of movement to bloom."
Other political leaders, and mainstream Canadians view the latest developments concerning the AFN as counterproductive. Many lament Atleo’s sudden departure and much uncertainty as to what (if it is to survive) might come next; still remains in the minds of many. Too much individualism remains within FN structures to affect constructive political cooperation among indigenous ethnic groups. Raymond Madore has a succinct way of putting it, “…First and Foremost, as advanced as FN people think of themselves; they forget one simple rule from the Grandmothers, ‘You can't pick a fight in the other man’s backyard because he knows all the rules (and) you can't fight him in your backyard because he will always say you cheated.’"
No mechanism were put in place by the AFN to establish a funding formula; which would enable them to finance its own entity. Whether it be a leadership lapse in judgment, or not, others maintain that Atleo tried to implement what the Chiefs asked of him, “There's been a lot of criticism for [Atleo] being a puppet of the Canadian government that I think wasn't warranted. I know Shawn Atleo and he's been doing the work he's been mandated to by the chiefs,” commented student leader, Max Fineday.
Twitter comments such as Perrin Beatty’s, “I will miss Shawn Atleo's decency and voice of reason. We've lost an important bridge between our aboriginal communities & other Canadians,” gives some indication as to the AFN’s true purpose in this process. Sentiment from the public, related to a CBC article (Shawn Atleo's abrupt resignation as AFN chief shocks social media) May 2, 2014 by Sunnie Huang addresses deeper concerns.“What's going on in Indian country is getting out of hand. Palmater, Nepinak, Bellegarde, Fox. None of these bozos could hold a candle to Shawn Atleo. I am Saskatchewan Indian, and the arrogance of these prairie chiefs is embarrassing and they certainly don't speak for this educated Indian.”-Rick Dick
Too mainstream Canadians, the issue of the AFN’s political legitimacy in the eyes of FN’s is of no concern. The perception remains that FN’s want more, need more and will never be able to become politically unified enough to make any real difference.
In regards to Bill-C33, Kinew gives some introspection as to what might be possible IF the AFN were to continue, “The AFN should step up and answer... with a counter offer to the federal government.” Meaning more funding to the tune of 40 million dollars and a focus on making the process transparent to FN…not the federal government, “…Bill C-33 will also describe how First Nations education authorities will be financially transparent, not necessarily to the Federal government, but definitely to First Nations citizens.”
Requesting funds, without accountability towards the Canadian taxpayer might not be what Kinew intended to say, but the message remains the same, “Pay up and get out of the way.” And in that respect, Canadians have heard that particular message incessantly; and has not incurred the desired affect among First Nations.
And so where does the AFN go from now on?
“Straight to hell,” some say. Others are of the opinion that only a true representative grassroots mandate can effectively counter Harper’s assimilation policies such as Bill C-33. The devil lies in the details and as of yet, no one (either from INM, Nepinak or Palmater) is offering a tangible political structure in which this might occur. The debate over the survival of the AFN rests within its executive body; and although many are making suggestions as to what should happen, there still remains the issue of what Harper intends to do-should the AFN dissolve.
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