With the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) annual assembly set for July when a new national chief is to be elected, a descendent of one of the men who created the organization, says it needs to circle back on its purpose.
Doreen Manuel is an esteemed educator and filmmaker and the daughter of George Manuel , who in led the National Indian Brotherhood, which later became the AFN.
“AFN has become in its own words, an advocacy organization,” she says. “What George Manuel worked with when he became national chief, he was working with a lobbying organization — that’s what they were building.”
She refers to her late father’s journals to frame the movement back then.
“He says ‘expand the powers that you have so as we can control our fishing rights, control our hunting rights, so as we can control our education so as to control our whole destiny through our political initiatives.’
“Now listen to that – expand the powers you have today — we have power. We have the power to shut Canada down and force them back to the negotiating table. What we need is an organization willing to step up to the plate and be that original body.”
Critics of the AFN say it’s a far cry from that now.
While out-going National Chief Perry Bellegarde points to $27 billion in new funding as part of his two-term legacy, critics say it’s evidence that the AFN is a yes-man to the federal government – a criticism that’s saddled many national chiefs before Bellegarde – play nice with Ottawa, and they’ll throw money at First Nations programming, stand up to Canada and fight for rights and title and the tap is turned off.
Sheila North ran for AFN national chief in 2018. The former grand chief of Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak has announced her candidacy for grand chief at the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs in its election in July.
“The fact is the federal government is way too involved in our day to day lives to this day,” North says. “We have the abilities to run own affairs as sovereign nations.”
But it’s hard to run things without money and under the current funding model – where Canada decides how much money it gives First Nations each year – how would that even work?
Manuel says by flipping the current model on its head.
“What we should be fighting for is a different way of getting paid from the government — what they owe us is back taxes on our land,” she says. “We should be collecting flat percentage rate of all that’s raised through taxation, resource extraction, Crown land leases – every fund they have, there should be a flat rate percentage of these fees paid to us — and retroactive.
“The funds should be monitored and paid out by our own governance board and shouldn’t be considered government funding, but rather land resource use payments.”
North believes there’s movement towards that – but it’s slow. Chiefs organizations have a role to play in this transformation and she’s confident it’s happening.
AFN is set to elect a new national chief in July. At the time this article was publishing there were four declared candidates.