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Is one voice enough to speak for Canada’s First Nations?

Eugene Boulanger from Tulita Sahtu, NWT, speaks to hundreds of people gathered in Victoria to support a push back on dirty energy projects on Oct.7, 2013.

CHAD HIPOLITO/The Globe and Mail

'Never forget who you work for."

That's Patrick Madahbee's advice for whoever takes over after the abrupt departure of Shawn Alteo last week from the Assembly of First Nations.

Mr. Madahbee, the Grand Council Chief of the Union of Ontario Indians, was one of the chiefs involved in setting up the AFN. But he and other native leaders say Canada's largest indigenous organization must now change to more closely reflect the wishes of those it represents.

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What they're calling for: a new structure for the organization that was created to be the voice of the country's more than 600 First Nations – one that would prevent the AFN and its national chief from being manipulated by the government or acting without the broad consent of aboriginals. Particularly aboriginal youth.

First Nations leaders acknowledge that will not be easy. But they say it's the only way forward if governments and industry have any hope of developing resources in and around their traditional territories without conflict. And if the youngest and fastest growing segement of our population is to stop suffering from the lowest standards of living in the country.

A pawn for Harper?

Mr. Atleo, cerebral and passionate about improving on-reserve schools, was trying to address poverty and despair in aboriginal communities – and the low graduation rates that contribute to them – by endorsing a controversial First Nations education bill drafted by the Conservative government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

But he made a major political error when he joined Mr. Harper on the Blood reserve in Alberta in February to announce that the government would provide an additional $1.95-billion in funding for on-reserve education.

His announcement caught many of the chiefs whom Mr. Atleo was supposed to represent by surprise.

In December, they had passed a resolution giving Mr. Atleo (who had voiced his own concerns about what the government was proposing) the mandate to press Canada for the changes they said were necessary to make the legislation acceptable: more First Nations control, a statutory funding guarantee, the incorporation of language and culture into the curriculum, no unilateral oversight by government and meaningful engagement by aboriginals in any future plans.

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But instead of coming back to the chiefs with the results of his discussions and asking for their approval, there was Mr. Atleo standing with Mr. Harper giving the First Nations Control of First Nations Education Act his blessing.

Mr. Atleo said the act met the five conditions spelled out by the chiefs in the December resolution. Many chiefs argued that it did not. They saw the final legislation as an attempt to cement the Aboriginal Affairs Minister's grip on the operation of their schools while downloading the liability onto the shoulders of the First Nations.

Anger began to build. There were calls for rallies and protests to demonstrate against the act.

And Mr. Madahbee says there were also calls on social media "for impeachment of the national chief."

Like the head of the United Nations, the national chief has never been authorized to strike deals on behalf of the many First Nations – as different from each other as Poland is from Denmark. The AFN is supposed to be the voice of the First Nations people, not its governing body.

Mr. Atleo understood that – and said so many times to the media and to chiefs' assemblies. But the Conservative government chose to ignore his job description and used his endorsement to justify pressing ahead with the bill over the widespread objections of native leaders.

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Now that Mr. Atleo is gone, in fact, many of the same chiefs who opposed him say he was merely an unfortunate pawn in a Conservative government game.

"I think, in his zealousness to do something, he got sucked in by Harper's strategy," says Mr. Madahbee. But Mr. Atleo's problems as national chief did not begin with education legislation.

Clayton Thomas-Muller, a spokesman for the loosely-knit native protest group Idle No More, says the tensions go back to January of last year, when chiefs converged on Ottawa.

They had hoped to meet with Mr. Harper about the issues raised by Ontario Chief Theresa Spence – who had gone on a hunger strike to demand that treaty obligations be met – and by demonstrations that were taking place across the country under the Idle No More banner.

Mr. Harper balked at confronting hundreds of native leaders in a single room. So, over the objections of many chiefs, Mr. Atleo and other members of the AFN executive agreed to meet with him privately.

"That was his undoing," says Mr. Thomas-Muller.

A new AFN

Native leaders will meet in Ottawa this week to start the process to replace their departed national chief. But, regardless of whom they select, what's clear is that the next leader of the AFN cannot be seen as a lone voice for the collective.

Derek Nepinak, the Grand Chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, is often touted as a potential successor to Mr. Atleo. But he says he will not run for the job.

The current structure of the AFN is more of a barrier to native aspiration than an answer to its problems, he says. Last summer, Mr. Nepinak helped tofound a new organization called the National Treaty Alliance that proposes individual First Nations set the agenda for their own talks with Ottawa based on their treaty rights.

Of the AFN race ahead, he says, "I certainly hope that leadership across the country look at this vacancy, not as a political opportunity for an ambitious individual, but as a real opportunity to engage and create a new age of legitimacy in the national voice."

Jody Wilson-Raybould, the AFN's regional chief in British Columbia, says there is much discussion about restructuring within the organization too.

"The voices of our citizens are calling out to the federal government and the provincial governments for change," she says. "They are also calling out to our leadership."

The question is how the AFN can remain relevant as it transitions away from the "impoverished notion of government" that was dictated by the Indian Act, says Ms. Wilson-Raybould.

Mr. Madahbee says that the AFN was never meant to remain with the structure it has now. It was supposed to make the transition from a body of 617 individual bands to 52 groups representing the ethnic makeup of the First Nations people.

In Ontario, for instance, he says there are 135 First Nations communities but just four actual nations – the Mushkegowuk-Cree, the Anishinaabeg, the Haudenosaunee-Iroquois, and the Delaware-Lenape.

A smaller AFN would be less cumbersome – and could reach consensus more quickly. It might also give the the government some idea of how to narrow the number of groups that must be consulted when negotiating legislation.

Some critics of the AFN also argue that the current system for electing a national chief needs to be fixed.

"When we have a national figurehead who is elected only by chiefs, and not by each individual First Nations citizen," says Mr. Thomas-Muller, "is that representational?"

He goes even further to ask whether the relationship between each of the 600-plus bands and the government needs to change.

Every First Nation has a sovereign-to-sovereign relationship with the Canadian government, Mr. Thomas-Muller says, and that may best be honoured by one-on-on talks between Ottawa and hundreds of native bands. "Whether or not the everyday citizen in this country agrees with that, the Supreme Court certainly does," he says.

Bob Rae, the former Liberal leader who has negotiated on behalf of First Nations in resource-development talks with the Ontario government, says it does not have to be as difficult as the government sitting down individually with every chief in the country.

He points to the process former prime minister Paul Martin employed to arrive at the Kelowna Accord in 2005, in which he and the premiers and selected aboriginal leaders sat down to discuss central issues including education, economic opportunities, health and housing.

"I think the [current] Prime Minister is someone who is comfortable dealing only with one guy – one CEO to another CEO – and the fact is that no national chief has that kind of authority," says Mr. Rae.

The hard line

Whoever the federal government has to deal with going forward, many aboriginals expect their leaders will take a harder stance than Mr. Atleo did.

That's because every part of the Conservative government's economic agenda will have an impact on the First Nations, says Mr. Thomas-Muller: "It's a major hydro-electric dam or massive clear cuts of forest or the expansion of the Canadian tar sands and associated energy infrastructure."

And of course, there's still an aboriginal education act to consider. All of this will test Canadians as well as the Harper team. Young First Nations people have demonstrated, as they did last year in Elsipogtog, N.B., where five cruisers were torched to stop a fracking operation, that they are prepared to stand and fight. The Idle No More movement has not gone away, it has merely regrouped.

"We're no going anywhere. Even long after Canada's gone, we're still going to be here," says Mr. Thomas-Muller.

"Newcomers, if you want to share this land with us, then you've got to reconcile."

Gloria Galloway is a reporter in The Globe's Ottawa bureau.

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Gloria Galloway has been a journalist for almost 30 years. She worked at the Windsor Star, the Hamilton Spectator, the National Post, the Canadian Press and a number of small newspapers before being hired by The Globe and Mail as deputy national editor in 2001. Gloria returned to reporting two years later and joined the Ottawa bureau in 2004. More

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