AFN National Chief Bellegarde facing summer of political turmoil

AFN National Chief Perry Bellegarde lost three senior officials in his office this spring, including chief of staff Dale Leclair.

(Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde. APTN/File)

Jorge Barrera
APTN National News
Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde is facing turmoil within his own office while concern grows on the outside he is beginning to exhibit the same tendencies to act unilaterally that led to his predecessor’s downfall.

Bellegarde lost three senior officials in his office this spring, including chief of staff Dale Leclair.

Three sources said Leclair left as a result of a deteriorating relationship with Bellegarde aggravated by interference from the national chief’s spouse.

Bellegarde announced Leclair’s departure in an email to AFN staff sent on June 14.

“Dale Leclair, chief of staff, has announced he is stepping down to pursue new opportunities,” said Bellegarde’s staff email. “Dale was instrumental in setting up my office and we will miss his energy and dedication and, of course, wish him all the best.”

Leclair was chief of staff for about 10 months. He departs at a time many see as a high water-mark in Indigenous-Crown relations.

It appears Leclair left because “things were no longer working” inside Bellegarde’s office, according to one source with knowledge of the situation.

Sources say Bellegarde’s spouse, Valerie Galley, continues to interfere in the decisions of the national chiefs’ office, undercutting senior staff.

“There was an issue with Valerie,” said one source.

Bellegarde initially hired Galley as his senior adviser, but was forced to remove her from the role as a result of pressure from some First Nation chiefs who were uncomfortable with the conflict of interest.

Leclair’s departure was preceded by that of Bellegarde’s former political adviser Max FineDay. He left the office earlier this month to take a position as co-executive director with Canadian Roots Exchange. FineDay was political adviser to Bellegarde for about one year.

Peter Dinsdale, the former chief executive officer of the AFN, recently left his post to head YMCA Canada. He began working there this month. Dinsdale was one of former AFN national chief Shawn Atleo’s top officials.

Sources say Galley’s involvement in the affairs of the national chief’s office played a role in both FineDay and Dinsdale’s departure.

Leclair could not be reached for comment.

FineDay did not want to comment on the situation.

Dinsdale did not want to comment on the situation.

The AFN did not provide a response to request for comment on the turbulence in the national chief’s office.

Concerns grow over Bellegarde acting unilaterally

Word of trouble inside Bellegarde’s inner circle comes as concerns emerged over the AFN’s involvement in developing the mandate for the newly-christened Federal-Provincial-Territorial-Indigenous-Forum which held its inaugural meeting on June 10. The forum is a reincarnation of the provinces’ Aboriginal Affairs Working Group created under the Council of the Federation.

The AFN has been involved in developing draft terms of reference for the forum, yet, the majority of the AFN executive has had no input in developing the organization’s position.

The move has rankled some First Nation leaders because the AFN has no mandate to negotiate at this new table.

AFN Manitoba regional Chief Kevin Hart said he wasn’t sure if he had seen the terms of reference before the meeting occurred.

“I do not know, for me to say yes or no, that is not fair for myself or my executive members,” said Hart.

AFN Alberta regional Chief Craig Makinaw said through a spokesperson he couldn’t comment on the draft because he hadn’t seen it and wanted to first hear back from member chiefs on the issue.

Hart said he believes Bellegarde is keeping the AFN executive in the loop on all major files.

“As far as I know, we are in the loop with what is happening and if we are not, then that is something that needs to be dealt with internally,” said Hart.

The issue of the forum’s mandate was recently placed on the AFN executive’s agenda for the first time ahead of their next meeting scheduled before the start of the next AFN general assembly which begins July 12.

Bellegarde’s perceived unilateral actions in dealing with Ottawa and the provinces is also expected to hit the floor of the AFN meeting, which will be held at the Scotiabank Convention Centre in Niagara Falls, Ont.

Russ Diabo, a well-known AFN watcher from Kahnawake, said Bellegarde appears to be making the same mistake which led to Atleo’s resignation after he unilaterally struck a $1.9 billion deal with former prime minister Stephen Harper on the First Nation Control of First Nation Education Act.

“I think this is really dangerous and I don’t recall AFN National Chief Bellegarde getting a mandate to enter into this forum. The AFN certainly isn’t a government,” said Diabo. “These national policy issues need to be reviewed by the rights holders, not (national Aboriginal organizations).”

An AFN spokesperson said the AFN executive was briefed in May about the issue and that the terms of reference are far from being finalized.

According to the draft mandate of the forum, obtained by APTN National News, it will be largely guided by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s calls to action, the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous  People, the national inquiry into murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls and the “evolving legal context” of inherent, treaty and Indigenous rights.

The draft document identifies the AFN, the Metis National Council and Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami as, “Indigenous governments or representatives of Indigenous governments.”

The document lists the three groups, along with the Native Women’s Association of Canada and the recently renamed Indigenous Peoples’ Assembly of Canada—which claims to represent off-reserve and non-status Indigenous peoples—as the only Indigenous voices with a seat at the table.

The federal, provincial and territorial governments are all represented at the table by their respective ministers responsible for Indigenous affairs.

“The purpose of the (forum) is to improve opportunities and outcomes for Indigenous peoples to ensure quality of life that is equal to other Canadians and to promote reconciliation,” said the draft document.

The federal Indigenous Affairs department said in a statement officials are working with the three main national Indigenous organizations to finalize the terms of reference for the forum.

“The overarching goal of this forum is to improve outcomes for Indigenous people in Canada,” said the statement.

The forum is currently co-chaired by federal Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett and Ontario’s Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation Minister David Zimmer.

Zimmer’s office said in a statement finalizing the terms of reference for the forum is “an important priority.” The statement said Ontario “looks forward to collaborating with officials from all parties at the…table to achieve consensus.”

[email protected]

@JorgeBarrera