National chief incumbent Shawn Atleo faces seven challengers in AFN election next week
When First Nations chiefs from across the country participate in a vote for national chief of the Assembly of First Nations next Wednesday (July 18), the ballot will be a historic one.
Incumbent Shawn Atleo, looking for his second three-year term, faces seven challengers in the run for the AFN’s top position, including two regional chiefs and an unprecedented four female candidates.
Atleo is facing criticism from some of these opponents, such as Mi’kmaq lawyer and academic Pam Palmater, who argues the organization should be taking a stronger stance against the Harper government.
The candidate, who heads the Centre for Indigenous Governance at Ryerson University, said she decided to run for national chief “for the cause”.
“In the last couple of years, the degree to which the AFN failed to address or even try to resist the assimilatory agenda that the Conservative government is trying to impose on First Nations really made me kind of sit back and think that I’ve got to do something,” she told the Georgia Straight by phone.
Palmater conceded it’s important for the advocacy organization to have a good relationship with government. However, she argued that the current situation is more of an “abusive” association.
“Right now, we’re in an abusive relationship with government, where Harper is calling all of the shots, not leaving any options, no room for negotiation, funding cuts across the board, and more paternalistic legislation instead of less,” she claimed.
The candidate added her greatest concern is what she called the “crisis”—or, in some cases, multiples crises—that some First Nations communities are facing, including lack of potable water or sanitation infrastructure, flooding, and inadequate housing.
According to Palmater, the solutions to these crises are recognition of First Nations jurisdiction and equitable funding.
“We’re funded at far lower rates across the board than provincial residents who don’t have aboriginal treaty rights that are constitutionally protected,” she said.
“If we had just a small fraction of our lands and resources, we wouldn’t even be talking about federal support,” she added. “We would be self-sustaining governments, which is what we want.”
Lawyer Joan Jack of the Berens River First Nation in Manitoba is also focusing on the state of the relationship between First Nations and the Canadian government.
“The issue is that Canada is benefitting and we’re not, and we’re in a dysfunctional relationship with the Canadian state, where our state of victimization maintains the status quo,” she contended.
Jack wants to see a more coordinated approach between the national chief and the Assembly of First Nations executive.
“People, when they watch a football game, they know the name of the quarterback but they also know the names of the linebackers and they know other people are famous on the team—and that’s not the case right now,” she said.
“For me, I would put much more emphasis on decentralizing…and looking at what’s different in their regions and what do they need, rather than centralizing it for the convenience of the Canadian state, looking for common interests—because that’s what the Canadian state wants to do.”
In Anishinaabe lawyer Diane Kelly’s view, listening to the “grassroots voice” is a key step for the AFN.
“I think what’s really happening here is that we need to take a new approach to dealing with government, we need to take a new approach to dealing with industry, and we need to take a new approach to dealing with other organizations and corporations,” she told the Straight by phone.
“We’re at a critical juncture here, where we could just fall off and do the status quo and issue press releases, or do we really draw in all those voices, all of those views and aspirations, because what it’s really about is people want hope.”
Ellen Gabriel, a Mohawk activist and the former president of the Quebec Native Women’s Association, is also calling for a stronger voice from the national leadership against the Conservative government. The candidate has been involved in advocacy for 22 years, ever since she was chosen as the spokesperson for her community of Kanehsatà:ke during the Oka Crisis.
“Indigenous people need a very strong voice—a diplomatic voice, but a strong voice, which I think has been missing slightly the last few years,” she said.
“We’re fighting against this huge machinery that seems to promote more the rights of corporations and development while we’re negotiating long-standing agreements about our lands and territories,” she added.
“For me, when there’s silence from an aboriginal organization that is supposed to be advocating for our rights…then I think there needs to be someone that can step up to the plate and criticize the government, regardless of whether there’s a threat of funding cuts.”
Staff of incumbent Atleo said he was travelling in remote areas and not available for an interview with the Straight. During a candidates debate aired on the Aboriginal People’s Television Network Thursday (July 12), the national chief also directed some of his comments at the federal government.
"This government, like all governments before it, has failed to uphold the honour of the Crown," he said. "And, collectively, we have to compel governments to step forward and recognize this."
According to Mohawk scholar Taiaiake Alfred , this year’s race for national chief is unprecedented in its inclusion of candidates that are challenging the current system.
The University of Victoria professor claims that candidates Palmater and Gabriel are drawing attention to what he called the “unacceptable” politics related to electing a national chief, and the structure of the AFN.
“You have people who really have no place in that system coming forward to make a stand against it...and saying, 'Hey we need a kind [of] and level of representation as First Nations people in this country that is authentic and that represents the grassroots,' ” he told the Straight by phone.
"The message that [Palmater is] putting forward, along with Ellen Gabriel, is that what we need to do is return to a position of advocating for our rights collectively as nations and people.”
The other candidates in the AFN election are Bill Erasmus, who is the regional AFN chief for the Northwest Territories, George Stanley, the regional chief for Alberta, and Terrance Nelson, the vice chairman of the American Indian Movement.
Countrywide, 633 chiefs are eligible to vote in the July 18 election.