The Assembly of First Nations picks a new leader this week, a pivotal decision as the once-prominent organization tries to regroup after a long period of turmoil.
The past year and a half have been tumultuous for the advocacy organization, due in large part to the abrupt resignation in May of former chief Shawn Atleo.
Atleo faced months of criticism and was accused of being too cosy with the federal government over a bill that native groups feel gives too much control to Ottawa over the education of native children.
Three men are vying to replace Atleo at a meeting starting Tuesday in Winnipeg.
The small list of candidates for national chief is a signs the organization is becoming increasingly disconnected from the nearly 1 million people it represents, said Hayden King, director of the Centre for Indigenous Governance at Ryerson University in Toronto.
In 2012, eight candidates ran for chief of the national advocacy organization — four men, and four women.
“I don’t know if I’d say it’s the voice of (the communities)” said King.
King, from the Beausoleil First Nation in southern Georgian Bay, maintains that First Nations groups in Canada have too many complex interests for one umbrella organization to grapple with.
Rather than one group, he’d like to see Ottawa dealing with individual First Nations.
“I think Canadians are going to have to wrap their minds around the fact there are many distinct nations with their own forms of leadership and governance, and they are owed a relationship as equals between their respective nations and Canada. I’ve yet to hear a persuasive argument about why that can’t be undertaken,” King said.
But the three candidates for AFN leader — interim chief Ghislain Picard, Perry Bellegarde, chief of the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations, and Leon Jourdain, a former two-term Treaty 3 grand chief — are vowing to ensure the AFN remains a relevant organization, one that effectively bridges the various needs of First Nations communities in the country.
Bellegarde, who ran unsuccessfully for the AFN leadership in 2009, says First Nations groups in Canada are united in several areas, including a widespread acknowledgement that native languages must be protected, and the push for economic self-sufficiency.
Those are among the topics he plans to talk about when he speaks to an all-candidates forum set for Tuesday during the AFN’s special chiefs assembly. The assembly votes for its new leader the next day.
“A lot starts with the recognition of self-determination, and establishing processes to work towards that, which also means talking about economic self-sufficiency, which is also tied into concepts of resource revenue sharing, and a new fiscal agreement with the Crown. That’s all linked together,” Bellegarde, 52, said in an interview.
Bellegarde said as a result of the Supreme Court’s decision earlier this year that awarded title to the Tsilhqot’in in British Columbia over a large swath of wilderness, “we (First Nations people) need to be there every step of the way, from start to finish on any project,” to ensure economic certainty — the same certainty that governments and industry strive for.
The Supreme Court ruling is expected to have significant implications for future natural resource use and extraction in B.C. and across this country.
“Our people aren’t opposed to development. We want jobs, wealth creation and employment opportunities for our people. But we want to be involved as well because we bring the added element of concern for the environment. We have a responsibility as indigenous people to protect the land and water for future generations,” Bellegarde said.
Picard, 59, an Innu from eastern Quebec, took over the AFN on an interim basis shortly after Atleo stepped down. He believes one of the first issues the AFN has to deal with is its structure. It’s a point he’ll make when he addresses the all-candidates forum.
There are 634 regional chiefs on the AFN, and one-third hail from B.C.
“How do we provide enough comfort so that everybody feels included in the process — small regions versus bigger regions — how do we balance that? To me it’s key in making the organization more relevant, not only for the people it represents, but also the leadership who will sustain it,” Picard said.
Picard’s priorities including “refining the decision making process,” of the AFN, to ensure that “collective and national positions respect communal and national principles.”
He wants the AFN to engage more with youth by strengthening the process by which they “systematically” present their ideas and recommendations to their chiefs.
On the environment, Picard supports the creation of a First Nations database for research and policy initiatives associated with the environment and sustainable development.
Jourdain is a counsellor-therapist from Lac La Croix, Ont., near the Manitoba border, representing nearly 30 First Nations in Ontario and Manitoba. He maintains that Canada got rich and developed economically at the “expense” of treaties with First Nations people in this country.
One of his priorities is addressing that imbalance.
He has a troubled past. He was charged with sexual assault in February 2004 after a Treaty 3 employee complained to police that Jourdain kissed her.
The charges against him were dropped after the complainant didn’t appear in court on the first day of the trial, and police couldn’t find her.
Jourdain has denied the allegations and has an ongoing $2.5 million lawsuit against the Ontario Provincial Police in Kenora that, among other things, alleges police proceeded with the case against him despite there being no reasonable prospect of a conviction.
Ghislain Picard, 59
• Interim Assembly of First Nations chief
• An Innu from eastern Quebec
• Awarded the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal in 2012 but later returned it to show support for Chief Theresa Spence of Attawapiskat, who was on a hunger strike
Perry Bellegarde, 52
• Chief of the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations
• From Little Black Bear First Nation, a Cree-Assiniboine band in southeastern Saskatchewan
• In 1984, became the first treaty Indian to graduate from the University of Regina with a bachelor of administration
Leon Jourdain, 60
• Former two-term Treaty 3 grand chief
• An Ojibwa from Lac La Croix, Ont., and a citizen of the Anishinabe nation in Treaty 3
• Helped establish an Anishinabe law that banned alcohol in his community.