Leadership row highlights AFN’s struggle for relevancy


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On the second day of meetings at the annual general assembly of the Assembly of First Nations, AFN Youth Council co-chair Rosalie LaBillois was blunt, honest and condemning.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 11/07/2022 (209 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

On the second day of meetings at the annual general assembly of the Assembly of First Nations, AFN Youth Council co-chair Rosalie LaBillois was blunt, honest and condemning.

“Every time you decide to squabble amongst yourselves,” LaBillois told the chiefs, “you forget the children and young people that you once swore to protect.”

A “squabble” is the perfect descriptor for AFN meetings this past week, which were dominated by an attempted coup d’état by regional chiefs.

A month ago, after accusing National Chief RoseAnne Archibald of sharing confidential AFN information and opening an investigation into allegations of workplace harassment, the AFN “executive council” (made up mostly of leaders selected by provincial organizations called regional chiefs) suspended her.

Archibald countered by announcing her removal was due to her demands for investigations into “corruption” in the AFN citing “financial irregularities,” “backroom deals,” and the mismanagement of employee payouts, contracts and program fund. The accusations implicate many regional chiefs and former national chief Perry Bellegarde.

In the end, chiefs sided with Archibald, supporting her resolution for a “financial review” of the past decade of AFN’s finances and, if impropriety is discovered, a “forensic audit.”

Chiefs also amended her resolution to require regional chiefs and Archibald to undergo “a process of healing and reconciliation.”

Meanwhile, barely anything else was discussed. Among 48 draft resolutions proposed for review at the gathering — covering issues including youth suicide, climate change and Indigenous rights — only a handful were covered.

It was an embarrassing moment, and proof of an ongoing path towards irrelevancy for Canada’s largest First Nations organization.

Note I said “Canada’s.”

Forty years ago, when the Assembly of First Nations was founded, the AFN performed a critical purpose: to give chiefs of First Nations a forum to ascertain a single, unified voice in reaction to Canada’s Indian policies.

The AFN isn’t a government, because it carries no rights. Individual First Nations do.

The AFN is a lobby group for chiefs, who are members of the organization. This is why First Nations citizens do not vote for the national chief, chiefs do.

The AFN sometimes acts like a government, delivering programs through partnerships with corporations and governments, but the distinction that it is not is critical.

Since the 1980s it has made sense to have one organization for chiefs because Canada treats all First Nations as “Indians” — an arbitrary, made-up term collapsing thousands of First Nations into a solitary category.

This was useful when it came to arguing issues like the inclusion of Indigenous and treaty rights in the constitution, the creation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the inquiry into murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls, and the implementation of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples into Canadian law.

A single AFN is much less useful though when it comes to addressing the vast differences and interests of First Nations, which are inherently regional and local. Imagine the challenges and goals of Winnipeg in comparison with Halifax and you can see the problems between a First Nation in B.C. and one in Nunavut.

Ironically, this is a problem of the AFN’s own making.

In many ways, the AFN has been successful in advocating for Canadian governments to consult and work locally and share partnerships and power with First Nations.

The AFN’s successful advocacy of the inclusion of “Indigenous and treaty rights” in the 1982 constitution alone has forced Canada to stop creating catch-all Indian policies that ignore or undermine Indigenous and treaty rights.

The problem is that now the AFN is turning away from just reacting to Canada and trying to find solidarity among more than 630 First Nations who are advocating for more than 630 interests and livelihoods.

This may not be a problem when you have a federal government threatening Indigenous and treaty rights (such the actions of former prime minister Stephen Harper) but it certainly is when you have a federal government led by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau which wants to institute changes and wants the AFN to be the body to do it.

Which brings us back to this past week’s AFN conflict.

In last year’s federal budget, the Liberals allocated the largest increase in funding for First Nations in Canadian history — nearly $18 billion dollars. In 2022, another $11 billion was allocated.

While a big chunk of this is taken up by Canada’s bureaucracy, another large chunk is given to the AFN to study issues, offer recommendations and deliver programs. This is why the AFN’s annual budget has doubled since 2017, from $20 million to over $40 million.

Archibald’s allegation of “corruption” in the AFN aside for a moment, the organization has a serious problem, with increasing tension between regional demands (and federal dollars) and an inability to address these in a national forum.

Meanwhile, children are being left behind while squabbles over money and power continue.


Niigaan Sinclair

Niigaan Sinclair

Niigaan Sinclair is Anishinaabe and is a columnist at the Winnipeg Free Press.

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