Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

AFN leadership fight brewing

Special chiefs' assembly in Manitoba to discuss issue: source

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OTTAWA -- While the Idle No More movement continued with peaceful acts of civil disobedience across Canada, a battle going on behind the scenes is eroding the leadership of the Assembly of First Nations.

A special chiefs' assembly is expected as early as next week in Manitoba, where the AFN's future role speaking for Manitoba bands will be debated.

The rift between Manitoba chiefs and the national native representative organization was on full display last week when Manitoba boycotted the meeting between AFN National Chief Shawn Atleo and Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs Grand Chief Derek Nepinak was among the chiefs who were livid that Atleo attended the meeting even though Harper refused to bring Gov. Gen. David Johnston to the table or hold the meeting in a larger, neutral location where more chiefs could participate. The Ontario and the Northwest Territories delegations also boycotted the talks. Other provinces were represented, but not all by chiefs, as dozens of chiefs from almost every region boycotted the meeting.

Nepinak planned to return to Manitoba to regroup with the province's chiefs before deciding what to do next about the AFN. On Monday, he released a statement sarcastically rejecting Atleo and his followers as "the heroes in all of this" and accusing some mainstream media of elevating them.

"The truth, however, is that the true heroes are those people who have broken free from the dictates of colonial policy schemes and refused to participate in trumped-up meetings that lead to no tangible outcomes for the benefit of our communities and all the families relying on us," he said.

Nepinak's office did not respond Wednesday when asked for further information about his position.

However, a source in Manitoba aboriginal governance told the Free Press there has been a lot of behind-the-scenes work in the last five days "assessing the conduct of the AFN."

The source, who asked to remain anonymous, said a special chiefs' assembly is planned for Manitoba as early as next week, where the main agenda item is likely to be the AFN and Atleo's leadership.

"He's not going to have a mandate," the source said. "It's getting to the point where we are going to consider pulling treaty negotiations."

He said under the AFN charter, every First Nation can opt out and many chiefs don't want the AFN negotiating on behalf of their bands anymore.

When Atleo suddenly took a medical stress leave Monday, speculation flew between chiefs in Manitoba, Ontario and Alberta that it was a publicity stunt. "This has a stench of seeking pity and endearment," one chief wrote.

Atleo and Harper's office are now controlling a treaty agenda without authorization, she continued. "I will not have my treaty domesticated! The other policies that are on the table... colour them as you may -- the blue-blooded man has taken full control."

The outcome of the Jan. 11 meeting was mainly an agreement for Harper and Atleo to meet again for what they described as "high-level talks." As well, a plan for Harper to start overseeing treaty implementation from his office was hatched.

The idea that Atleo will be the one leading the treaty negotiations irks many Manitoba First Nations leaders because he is from B.C., where there are no historical treaties.

The source said Atleo has often left treaty discussions out of AFN meetings despite pleas from Manitoba and Ontario particularly to have them high on the agenda.

New Brunswick regional Chief Roger Augustine, filling in for Atleo while he is on leave, said he hadn't had any formal notice from Manitoba, but the AFN wouldn't stand in their way.

"We saw this one coming," he said. "It's quite obvious some Manitoba chiefs are not happy. I think the prime minister would probably be open to the idea of dealing directly with them (on treaties)."

Augustine said he'd have a better idea of the sentiment in Manitoba and elsewhere today when he receives a report from regional chiefs in B.C. and Saskatchewan.

"We won't hold anyone back. We'll stand by and help in any way we can. Does it undermine the efforts of the national chief? I don't think so."

mia.rabson@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 17, 2013 A3

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