Attempts by the head of Canada's largest aboriginal group to strike a new relationship between first nations and the federal government face a rocky future as chiefs in the West angrily denounce a process that they say was crafted without their consultation or approval.
Chiefs attending a meeting this week of the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations (FSIN) unanimously endorsed a motion rejecting the Canada-First Nations Joint Action Plan.
"They never consulted with any of the nations," Chief Wallace Fox of the Onion Lake Cree Nation, the author of the motion, said in a telephone interview on Thursday. "There was no consultation or endorsement from us as chiefs of this region for this process."
The action plan, which the federal government and the Assembly of First Nations unveiled last summer, was reaffirmed by Prime Minister Stephen Harper and AFN National Chief Shawn Atleo last month in Ottawa at what has been called a historic meeting between chiefs and federal officials. Largely aspirational, it aims to improve first-nations prosperity through better education, economic development, respect for culture and transparency.
But Mr. Fox said the plan would negatively affect the work that he and his people have been doing to develop their own laws and governance systems based on their treaty rights.
"Much of this is a B.C.-driven process in my own personal opinion," said Mr. Fox. "So the one-envelope-that-fits-all process doesn't sit well with us."
It is not the first time the Saskatchewan chiefs have expressed dissatisfaction with initiatives endorsed by Mr. Alteo, who is from British Columbia.
The province's first nations were among those who refused to participate in an educational panel struck by the National Chief and the federal government in late 2010. That panel's findings were released last week, and the Saskatchewan chiefs were quick to discount them.
And at a meeting last July, chiefs in Saskatchewan and Quebec drafted a resolution saying the Assembly of First Nations should not engage in a process with the federal government on their behalf on legislation that would affect treaty rights.
The ongoing rift demonstrates the lack of accord among the more than 630 Canadian first nations.
It may also, at least in part, be politically driven. Mr. Atleo faces re-election later this year and it is rumoured that Blaine Favel, a former chief of the FSIN, could be among the contenders for his job.
The response of the AFN to the dissention is that every first nation is free to pursue its own course of action and there is no obligation to accept any of the national organization's initiatives.
Mr. Atleo, who attended the meeting in Saskatchewan as an observer, stressed that point in a speech after the vote on Mr. Fox's motion.
"I understand fully that every region must make its choice and will," he said. "If the current Indian Affairs education agenda is acceptable and the Indian Act provisions for education are acceptable to you – so be it. There will be no solutions imposed by AFN."
Saskatchewan is not the only place where Mr. Atleo is facing opposition.
Chiefs in Manitoba held a meeting last week at which they passed a resolution asking Grand Chief Derek Nepinak to take several steps in regard to the meeting in January between the Prime Minister and first nations.
"Most of the steps that I am mandated to take are internal and cannot be discussed openly in the media," Mr. Nepinak explained. "I can share with you, however, that the Manitoba chiefs do not endorse the process identified at the gathering."
And Mr. Fox, whose first nation straddles Saskatchewan and Alberta, said he expects the Alberta chiefs to bring forward a motion similar to his when they meet at the end of the month.
There is mounting frustration, he said. The AFN should be "listening to the direction that the chiefs are supposed to be providing," said Mr. Fox, but "it seems to be falling on deaf ears."