The Assembly of First Nations 42nd annual general assembly is underway with the goal line in sight for seven contenders vying for the organization’s top job. Delegates from First Nations across the country gathered virtually Tuesday to begin selecting a new national chief and send him or her off with a fresh lobbying mandate.
But first, the candidates faced one final hurdle. A resolution to postpone the election until later this year hit the floor early in the day.
Given poor connectivity, wildfires, pandemic uncertainty and low delegate turnout, proceeding with the election would be detrimental to the AFN and First Nations issues generally, Squamish Nation councillor and spokesperson Khelsilem told the assembly.
“Here we are today with a very small, small portion of the AFN delegates that should be here — and that could be here,” said Khelsilem, who tabled the resolution. “I strongly urge the delegates here today to think about who is not in the room today and why aren’t they here.”
Only 312 First Nations were registered as of Tuesday afternoon, and of those only 122 were online, said Kukpi7 (Chief) Judy Wilson of Neskonlith Indian Band in B.C.
Yukon region seconded the motion, and other chiefs also worried about low turnout. But the resolution was strongly opposed by delegates from Alberta and Ontario regions, which combined to field four of the seven national chief contestants.
“This resolution is self-serving and needs to be thrown out,” said Okimaw (Chief) Vernon Watchmaker of Kehewin Cree Nation in Alberta. “This resolution shows a lack respect for the authority of the chiefs in assembly.”
Watchmaker urged the chiefs to consider a number of issues. He said it would be unfair to allow new candidates to enter the race considering the existing cap on campaign spending that current candidates have probably already reached.
He said postponing would require an amendment to the AFN charter and potentially lead to court challenges from current candidates who may perceive the process as unfair. Ogimaa Duke Peltier of Wiikwemkoong Unceded Territory said his region of Ontario opposed the resolution.
“This resolution should be defeated,” said Peltier. “If we’re going to be waiting for calmness to happen prior to an election, we may be waiting forever.”
With only 50 chiefs from B.C. in attendance to vote on the resolution, according to Wilson, and faced with firm opposition in other regions, the resolution was defeated with 102 votes against, 60 in favour and two abstentions.
The motion needed 60 per cent in favour to pass, so the election will go forward.
Bellegarde bids goodbye
Following opening ceremonies, outgoing National Chief Perry Bellegarde, who has occupied the post since 2014, offered a parting address
“For more than 40 years, I have been humbled to learn from many chiefs and elders who instilled in me a strong belief in our First Nations traditions and laws, and a commitment that they be passed on to our young people,” he said in video remarks.
“I have always believed that we will prevail by coming together in co-operation, in partnership, in unity and ceremony. And from there, developing processes that unite rather than divide.”
Akwesasne Elder Mike Mitchell honoured Bellegarde with an eagle feather, which the smiling national chief held over his heart. Mitchell commended Bellegarde for using language and ceremony as a way to build consensus among disparate groups across the Country.
National chiefs have traditionally only served two terms and Bellegarde announced he wouldn’t seek a third term prior to the December 2020 special chiefs assembly. Originally from Little Black Bear First Nation in Saskatchewan, he began his foray into politics in 1986 with the File Hills Qu’Appelle Tribal Council.
He became grand chief of the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations, which represents 74 First Nations in Saskatchewan, in 1998, making him the province’s AFN regional chief.
He mounted a failed campaign to become national chief in 2009, then served as chief of his home community between 2010 and 2012. He ran successfully for national chief in 2014 and won a second term in 2018.
His tenure at the national level has had ups, downs and occasionally attracted criticism for being too cozy with the Liberal government. But Bellegarde pointed to wins such as child welfare reform, legislation to implement the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People (UNDRIP) and huge increases in cash for First Nations in successive federal budgets.
“Unwavering is my belief that the time has come for us to share in the wealth and riches of our own country, Canada,” said Bellegarde in his speech.
Resolutions and all candidates forum
The election begins Wednesday morning and, with a diverse slate of candidates and no evident front runner, many expect it to require multiple ballots. An all-candidates forum will happen Tuesday evening offering the hopefuls a chance to impress the delegates.
The winner must secure 60 per cent of ballots cast, which is no easy task in normal times and is expected to be more difficult virtually.
The convention-style election often involves strategic regional block voting and requires deal making and alliance forming to win.
B.C. can field the most votes with about 200 First Nations and has no candidate running. Ontario comes in second with 133 First Nations. The three Prairie provinces have a combined 180 ballots to cast. The remaining 120 or so votes are spread out across the rest of the country.
There are four candidates from the Prairies: Lee Crowchild and Jodi Calahoo Stonehouse from Alberta; Reginald Bellerose from Saskatchewan; and Kevin Hart from Manitoba.
Alvin Fiddler and RoseAnne Archibald are gunning for the job from Ontario, and Cathy Martin hails from Quebec.
View their platforms, visions and goals here: AFN Election 2021
Following the election, about two dozen issues are up for debate via resolutions.
Headlining the list are demands to give P.E.I. its own regional chief, make First Nations policing an essential service, and demand Ottawa implement its plan to end violence against Indigenous women, girls and gender-diverse people.
There are competing resolutions about the Liberal’s UNDRIP act. Resolution 11 demands the AFN executive hold a ratification process on the act prior to continuing any advocacy work.
Resolution 12 would affirm the legislation “does not domesticate First Nations’ sacred rights” and instruct the national chief to keep pressing Ottawa to co-develop the national action plan within two years.
Other resolutions demand the AFN improve its internal financial procedures, support Ottawa’s plan to close the infrastructure gap by 2030, and lobby for First Nations control over education funding, among several others.
An AFN spokesperson said 357 chiefs and proxies had registered by Tuesday evening, while registration remains open.