Friday, April 7, 2023

AFN...Winning can be losing at the same time.

       Perry Bellegarde won the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) leadership on the second ballot. What does that mean? It means that the regional Chiefs and their proxies are comfortable with the gains they have made with the Liberal government in these last three years. The 2018 AFN elections in British Columbia were hailed as trend setting-destined to shape the future course of Indigenous relationships with the federal government of Canada. It also offered hope that as an organization, the AFN could finally reverse course and become more in-line with grassroots objectives and decision making-in regard to the issues that directly affect their quality of life on and off reserves. Among the five candidates, Russ Diabo held that grassroots hope, 
“…there will be consequences,” he said during his closing remarks. 
Described as a master tactician on Indigenous issues, the AFN under his leadership would have forced a different outcome for the Liberal government heading into a general election in the fall of 2019. 

Indigenous activist Kanahus Manuel from the Secwepemc and Neskonlith peoples of British Columbia is one of the most recognizable faces of opposition to what the AFN represents. Having been on the front lines resisting urban developments such as the Sun Peak Resort, including natural resource extraction agreements such as Imperial Metals-and more recently the Kinder Morgan (KM) project pipeline, Manuel finds organizations like the AFN to be facilitating the path of assimilation of FNs people. Manuel is also a spokesperson for Tiny Houses Warriors (THW) which is predominantly led by Indigenous women who have reclaimed land along the proposed KM route.  Being in ‘bed’ with the federal government of the day, is a constant refrain. One that Bellegarde dismisses as nonsense.
“As National Chief we have to bring about policy and legislative change…. As First Nations Peoples we’re all about setting the agenda. Through strong advocacy we’ve influenced the Liberal Party platform,” explained Bellegarde as he was interviewed by APTN reporter Jorge Barrera. (Facebook live streaming) July 26, 2018. Bellegarde continued, 
“We’re not responding to them, they are responding to us! We have to have access to the decision makers, and we have good access now and that’s all that represents. I have good relationships with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and all the Ministers in Cabinet, that’s a positive thing. I’m opening doors for (national) Chiefs to come in. I hear that continuously across Canada.”  

Chief and Councils (C&C) across reserves have little choice in the matter. The only source of revenue continues to be the federal government, and it so doing are expected to follow instruction. Access to more funding via the AFN has benefited Chiefs who are looking for results that can be ‘pointed to’ on their reserves as providing relief-Additional housing, a new treatment water plant, a road linking a community to the rest of the world, make a difference. The betterment of reserve communities have transformed under the Trudeau Liberal government. The easement of long time suffering, and inconveniences experienced by ‘grassroots members’ daily lives are triggering volatile responses. Some will recognize (C&C) efforts, and some will argue that it is far too little and want more.  
The AFN is often accused as being absent and not supporting grassroots initiatives on the ground. Mohawk activist Shawn Brant recalls the failed attempt to block Hwy 401 and the CN Rail line back in 2006.
“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, we could have negotiated our place in society.”-APTN July 23, 2018.
Venessa Watts and Hayden King’s opinion piece surmises the issue by stating, “…The AFN now seems to run interference for the state (Canada). This is the impossible reconciliation First Nations citizens are forced to make every time the AFN holds an election”-The Globe and Mail July 26th, 2018. (

With respect to sovereignty, self-determination, unceded, inherent treaty title and rights-these word definitions vary depending on who you talk to. Claiming ‘sovereignty’ means that an ‘entity’ can muster an army, its own currency, and able to generate wealth. The Cambridge dictionary defines ‘sovereignty’ as “the power of a country to control its own government.”  And describes, ‘Self-government’ as “…the ability or power to make decisions for yourself, especially the power of a nation to decide how it will be governed.”

As a collective-FNs no longer agree on the type of governance they wish to accept, “…While attempts are made to draw upon a range of examples and to address diversity, it is next to impossible to write about Indigenous governance in a manner which speaks to the histories and experiences of all Indigenous nations and First Nations communities. The complexities of history, the divergent experiences with colonialism, and the fact that all nations have different political traditions and political systems makes any conversation about Indigenous government-past, present, and future-extremely difficult and extremely complex.”-Kiera L. Ladner, 2006 -(

Wealth generation within FNs are limited.  Equity-ownership partnerships in the oil and gas sector are lucrative-they provide a constant source of revenue. Ladner continued to write, 
“…Poverty and revenue sharing arrangements will need to be addressed because without the wealth or resources and development opportunities provided by their traditional territories, most First Nations cannot cope with the financial requirements of government…As such new treaties will have to be negotiated-especially where no treaties exist.” 

Her research paper made determinations based on equal representation. Meaning the 3rd level of governance which is being proposed by the federal government-is not feasible. Instead Ladner alludes to ‘Indigenous constitutions’.

“The first step is to make a decision. To do so, nations must gather, engage themselves in a discussion of, and educate themselves about, their constitutional order. They must address their options for the future collectively and decide as a community how they want to govern themselves...Indigenous governments have the ability to exist as a parallel to federal and provincial governments, exercising those jurisdictions afforded by their constitutional order and treaty relationship and as recognized and affirmed with section 35 of the Canadian constitution while federal and provincial governments exercise those jurisdictions afforded by their constitutional order under section 91, 92 and 93.” Ladner, 2006.

To date, there is no consensus among the AFN or anywhere else for that matter-which can articulate how such a process can work within Sec. 35 of the Constitution. Ladner proposes that the process must be championed by someone. Kanahus Manuel could be that champion. And there are others who like Manuel will not wait until federal or provincial governments decide to engage. Bellegarde’s nomination and victory was a clear message for grassroots activists who continue to resist. and claim-the AFN has to be dissolved. In order to do this, they have to look for other streams of revenue-which is not yet resolved.  The national chiefs who elected Bellegarde are of the view that increasing revenue streams from the federal government is the only way to better the daily lives of their members and communities. And in the middle of all of this you have the rest of the Canadian population that is scratching their heads and wonder when will this end. What can be done?

Jeffrey Ansloos wrote an op-ed piece in MacLean’s describing one possibility,
 “…it will require Indigenous-Canadian political imagination. It creates a future where multiple sovereignties exist in the same geographic space without exploitation; where self-determined Indigenous governments are engaged as constitutional partners; where there are material redistributions of power that give force to Indigenous rights.”
What Ansloos suggests is impossible. Canadians will refute the concept of “nations within nations”. What would that look like? Arthur Manuel posited that in order for reserves to become self-sufficient they needed a certain radius of land (square miles) to be governed under their own laws. This would create chaos in municipal, provincial and federal jurisdictions. It certainly would mean a steep decrease in revenue streams which all systems of governance depend on to administer goods and services to its population. Is there enough revenue sharing for 632 Indigenous reserves across Canada? John Horgan, Premier of British Columbia acknowledges its contradictory message as he and his government continues to circumvent Indigenous rights concerning the Site C injunction hearing.
“Despite all this, the government’s submission to the injunction hearing asserts that the First Nations should have taken on the enormous burden of launching a legal action even while the province was ostensibly still making up its mind whether the project would proceed. The government’s submission actually states that “political speeches” or that nature are not “legally enforceable promises.”-Alex Neve, secretary-general of Amnesty International Canada.

The Angus Reid Institute revealed greater divisions within Canada as it relates to Indigenous issues. While this survey does not have anything to do with the AFN, it proves the escalating degree of resistance from Canadians and Indigenous activists alike-for distinct reasons. At a glance, the survey reveals that 66% of Canadians believe that Indigenous communities “should be governed by the same systems and rules as other Canadians.”  The survey may not be 100% accurate, and in this case, it doesn’t matter. The significance lies in the distribution. 

 What can we expect? KM opposition will not disappear. As per the Liberal government’s intent to follow through concrete timetables have been put in play according to a CBC report.

                “The Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project took a symbolic step forward Friday morning with a Cree blessing and groundbreaking ceremony at one of the project’s equipment stockpile sites located on First Nation land near Stony Plains, Alta.”

Claims of violence resulting in deaths have been predicted over this issue. Not surprising considering the positions taken by all involved. What will that look like and what the consequences might be is anyone’s guess. One thing for sure, casualties will be felt on both sides.