The Assembly of First Nations (AFN) is set to elect its next leader later this year, and the winner of that contest will inherit a fractious organization facing pressing issues for natives, including a landmark court ruling impacting the future of resource development in their communities, education reform and financial transparency.
Elections for the new leader, a job that pays between $135,000$ to $167,000 a year, are set for Dec. 9 to 11 when the organization meets in Winnipeg. Nomination papers can be submitted from Oct. 14 to Nov. 4.
On Wednesday, the Chiefs of Ontario are hosting a forum in Toronto open to individuals planning to declare their candidacies, or who are seriously considering doing so. Ontario Regional Chief Stan Beardy, one of the key organizers of the forum, says the event is intended to hear their platforms or ideas.
Ghislain Picard, 59, an Innu from Eastern Quebec, and the current interim national chief of the Assembly of First Nations has declared his intentions to seek the leadership and intends on being in Toronto for the forum.
The AFN, a national organization for nearly one million First Nations people in Canada, was thrown into turmoil this past spring when then-leader Shawn Atleo suddenly resigned — a first for the organization.
He was in his second consecutive term, but stepped down amid criticisms from some AFN chiefs who felt Atleo had become too cosy with Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his government over Bill C-33. That bill was aimed at improving education for First Nations students and ensuring aboriginal control of the curriculum.
Critics said the bill was put together without adequate consultation from the community, that it lacked sufficient federal funding and that it disrespected First Nations’ treaty rights.
It seemed like a First Nations or aboriginal issue was making headlines every week this year in Canada. For instance, native groups, including B.C.’s Gixtaala First Nation, continued to flex their muscle in opposition to Enbridge’s $8-billion Northern Gateway oil pipeline project, which calls for two 1,177-kilometre pipelines to be built between Bruderheim, Alta., and Kitimat, B.C.
That fight is headed for court and is likely to go on for a few years.
Other significant developments the AFN and broader First Nations community faced this year included:
• The Supreme Court’s decision earlier this year awarding title to the Tsilhqot’in in British Columbia over a large swath of wilderness in that province. The decision marked the first time the high court recognized a First Nation’s title to a specific tract of land. The high court decision set a precedent and is expected to have significant implications for future natural resource use and extraction in B.C. and across this country. Billions of dollars are at stake.
• The First Nations Financial Transparency Act, introduced last year by the Harper government, requires full public disclosure of chiefs’ salaries and expenses, as well as financial information from nearly 600 First Nation communities.
One controversial disclosure was that John Thunder, the chief of the 125-member Buffalo Point First Nation in Manitoba, earned $129,318 last year.
Ottawa issued a July 29 deadline for financial disclosure, and that information will be published. But many communities haven’t complied. One major concern being raised is that disclosing financial records could hurt their businesses because competitors would have access to that information.
Bernard Valcourt, Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Minister, has threatened that any community failing to submit the necessary financial records over the next few months would face sanctions including the withholding of funding — a threat that has incensed some First Nations leaders.
• Calls for a public inquiry into missing and murdered aboriginal women in Canada. The AFN has pushed for a federal inquiry into the issue, but the Harper government has refused, instead launching an “action plan’’ to end violence against aboriginal women, a plan that includes $5 million a year, for five years.
Aside from Picard, other candidates likely to enter the race include chief of the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations, Perry Bellegarde, and Wab Kinew, a musician, broadcaster and educator.
Picard, whose first language is Innu, second French and third English, is still working on completing his platform. He says restructuring the AFN and bolstering its ability to advocate on behalf of First Nation communities is key.
“I totally support the notion that there needs to be engagement with government, but as well there needs to be engagement with ourselves. To me that speaks a lot to our need collectively to reconcile the diversity of our communities,’’ he said from Quebec City Friday, in a telephone interview with the Star.
“We’re speaking about 634 communities, 60 different nations, different languages, different jurisdictions, and I would even say different notions as to what nationhood implies,’’ he added.
He says the First Nations community is “at odds’’ with the federal government over a number of issues, so the key going forward for the AFN is how to build on the differences within that community “rather than create more divisions.’’
Lawyer and assistant professor in the faculty of law at the University of Toronto, Douglas Sanderson, a member of the Opaskwayak Cree nation in Manitoba, agrees that the next AFN leader faces a balancing act.
“Across the country, First Nations have much in common, and so a single voice on these issues means the ability to press those issues in Ottawa,’’ Sanderson says.
“But when it comes to economic development, the issues are regional and local. The next AFN leader will need to be able to unify First Nation chiefs around the national issues, while still lending voice and political support to regional economic development issues,’’ Sanderson adds.