Opinion: In defence of the Assembly of First Nations and the challenges in dealing with Canada


Cindy Woodhouse, the newly elected national chief of the Assembly of First Nations. Photo: APTN.

The Indian Act creates a tri-level, decision-making system with democracy only at the very bottom level. The top two decision-making levels are held by unelected-by-the-people-they-govern CANADIANS. The Assembly of First Nations (AFN) role is to try to influence these top two levels, and Canadian law-making overall, to try and get First Nations thinking and desires into a system steeped in colonialism and run by Canadians. The AFN did not create colonialism or assimilation. The weight of Canada weighs heavily on First Nations, and so it also suppresses the AFN.

Many of today’s First Nation individuals like to drive trucks, eat at KFC, shop at Walmart and take part in Canada’s culture and economy in many different ways (Have you finished your Christmas shopping?). The level of grassroots First Nation participation in Canada has grown considerably since the Peace and Friendship Treaties and the Numbered Treaties were made. That participation has also increased since the National Indian Brotherhood (which became the AFN) was founded.

This is also a reality that the AFN must navigate but did not create. If grassroots First Nations willingly take part in Canada’s culture and economy and treat Canadians as neighbours and friends, it becomes difficult for the AFN to treat Canadians as “the enemy” as the AFN will always reflect current First Nations desires and culture. To put this another way, if you drive a truck, you’re going to need fuel, a gas station and all that comes with the economy and needs that surround truck ownership. That is a reality that your chief, and by extension the AFN, must deal with.

Many First Nation people say democracy was created by First Nation traditional cultures. Even in First Nations cultures that had a hereditary system, sometimes the grassroots people did not see the hereditary chief as suitable to their survival, which then meant a form of democracy was engaged. Within this “voting,” families were often represented by a spokesperson chosen by the family. The AFN is run based on the idea of democracy by representation. What does this mean? In short, it is the belief that the people a chief cares about – their Kookum and Mooshum, their parents, their cousins, their nieces and nephews, and even their immediate family – have in the past or currently experience their First Nation like everyone else.

That means, if the water system is bad, they also have bad water. If there is no firetruck, they are also in greater danger when their house catches on fire. If the road to the rez is poor, their vehicles also hit the potholes. Chiefs were grassroots people just seconds before being elected. Given this reality and given that most chiefs were voted into that position by the people of their community, it is felt they can and will represent the concerns of the people who voted them in and can vote them out.

Many, many First Nations people see the AFN as something that was built due to the colonial system applied to First Nations governance. That is a true and valid opinion. However, it is also true that Canada will pass laws regarding First Nations no matter if the AFN exists or not. If there is no venue for First Nations to try and influence lawmaking, Canadian law will be passed that is entirely written and influenced by Canadians and their desires.

Law is the voice of a people. The only way to push Canadian law off First Nation lands is to replace it with First Nation law. It is not the AFN’s place to make First Nation law. With that in mind, as examples, the Cree nation should be making law that meets the needs of today’s Cree people and the Mohawk Nation should be making Mohawk law that meets the needs of today’s Mohawk people.

The AFN is more like the United Nations, it is not itself a nation.

Many First Nations people do not want the AFN to become a government. This is a valid opinion. The AFN is not a “nation” or a “society” nor is it “sovereign”. However, if one feels the AFN should not be a government, then it would be illogical to expect the AFN to have the power of a government or have government-level activities or services. Again, most First Nations are governed – and receive services – through the Indian Act system.

Hundreds of years of colonialist history will not be resolved in the three-year term of any national chief, they must prioritize and focus on the tasks given to them during their time in office. The AFN can only work within the mandate it is given (working to add First Nations thoughts into the Canada-defined First Nations governance system) with the leverage it is given (read: the power to influence any current Canadian government is directly proportional to the support it gets from First Nations communities and the First Nations grassroots as well as the support it gets from grassroots Canadians and the wishes they express to their government representatives re: the First Nations-Canadian relationship). The AFN does not have an army or a militia. It does not have police or courts. It is guided through bottom-up resolutions, and not top-down lawmaking. Due to colonialism, and First Nation wishes, the AFN is a weak organization, politically, financially and militarily.

It is entirely correct for First Nation communities and individuals to make the AFN aware of their goals and desires, to watch guard the AFN, and to monitor the AFN, including its actions and its spending. Having said that, the AFN is plagued by a rash of detractors that could be best described as disgruntled former employees, those who have lost an AFN election and those who expect the AFN to resolve all the ails of colonialism and the weight of Canada.

These detractors will lambaste the AFN and national chief no matter what they do. They often point out the AFN is a construct that exists due to the presence of colonialism, often without also acknowledging the pervasive, historical and far-reaching nature of colonialism and its impacts on First Nation lives, economies and politics. They often fail to mention that Canada will pass laws regarding First Nations whether the AFN exists or not.

The AFN’s detractors often include fearmongers, who will use words like “municipality” to strike fear into First Nation hearts, without mentioning that a municipality is a specific legal entity and if there is no movement to, for example, have the province take full responsibility for the liabilities of governing a particular First Nation, then it is unlikely that First Nation will be turned into a “municipality”. It should be noted that municipalities have much more democracy, and economic and political control over their lands than any First Nation within the Indian Act system.

It is not the AFN’s job to resolve the impacts of voluntary and involuntary assimilation. It is not the AFN’s job to keep First Nation youth from starting their assimilation journey where their parents’ journey left off. The AFN cannot be all things. It can advocate for and fight for resources, from Canada, that First Nation nations can then use to resolve their internal difficulties, both cultural and political. But the AFN has no power or role to force nations or families to heal themselves.

Read More: 

‘Canada, we’re coming for you’: Cindy Woodhouse elected national chief of the Assembly of First Nations 

Opinion: ‘Where’s the beef’ at the Assembly of First Nations? 

In conclusion, I would say that the AFN is full of good people, mostly First Nations, but people of other nations too, who are devoted to trying to make a better life for First Nations families, all while feeling the weight of colonialism and Canada. So, when a person is about to complain about the AFN, I hope they would ask themselves some questions first. Those questions would include: what have I done today to support and provide resources to my nation and/or traditional governance system? What have I done recently to push my nation to make law that reflects my culture and meets the current needs of my family? Am I about to blame the AFN for something my nation should be doing themselves? Am I expecting an organization constructed in response to a colonialist system to resolve issues that are central to my cultural and spiritual community? Am I placing blame on the AFN that really belongs with Canada and the Indian Act governance system? Is my complaint better resolved locally, with the neighbours around me, as compared to an advocacy organization that is thousands of miles away?

If any of the answers to these questions add up to the AFN being the appropriate venue for change and movement, then I encourage them to speak to their chief and their AFN regional chief and do the work necessary to ensure these two representatives present these concerns before the Chiefs-in-Assembly. As many First Nations experience the same issues, due to colonialism and the Indian Act governance system, there is a good chance someone at the AFN is already working on a way to advocate for a solution.

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