December election will determine future of Assembly of First Nations

New national chief will face tenuous relationship with the grassroots
Photo: Ben Powless

With a December by-election looming for the Assembly of First Nations’ top spot, Perry Bellegarde, Ghislain Picard and Leon Jourdain are contending to replace the embattled former national chief, Shawn Atleo.

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A hereditary chief from Ahousaht, B.C., Atleo was considered to have a top-down approach to fulfilling the AFN’s mandates, which became viewed in a light not so favourable by his colleagues. He resigned in May after First Nations leaders criticized him for being too friendly with the federal government — and he has now been enlisted by the B.C. government to work as a mediator between the government, First Nations and industry.

But, who can blame him for the struggle, really? With more than 600 individual and autonomous First Nations from coast to coast to coast, balance would be hard to find, especially when one is being pulled in so many different directions while also having to contend with the agenda of the federal government.

The challenge

For most First Nations, the major issues stem from historic and more recent treaties, including 100-year-old annuities that are not tied to inflation and implementation or treaty rights that are not honoured by the Crown. For others the issues centre on title and rights to unceded traditional territories.

For everyone, however, there are common issues related to self-government, natural resources, economic development, and a quickly growing youth demographic, along with social issues from poverty to reconciliation, education to missing and murdered Aboriginal women. Yet common ground is quicksand in Indian Country — and nobody stands together for very long.

Yet common ground is quicksand in Indian Country — and nobody stands together for very long.

Therein lies the crux of the AFN’s greatest problem: the lack of unity within its ranks. The diversity among First Nations is as great as that of the landscape across the nations, and they are all at different levels of capacity, which makes it increasingly difficult for them to be on the same page, regardless of the issues.

Further complicating matters is the pan-Indian approach traditionally used by the Crown, which insists on applying the same strategy and treatment across all nations despite different histories, treaties and relationships. This essentially pits First Nations against each other in what some refer to as divide and conquer.

The candidates

Although Bellegarde has been accused of being too moderate, the centrist may be in the best position to win the upcoming election for the position of AFN national chief.

Bellegarde, a Cree from the Little Big Bear First Nation in Saskatchewan, has demonstrated he has the most diverse experiences of all three candidates. He’s represented his people at the grassroots level and on council, but has also worked for and represented First Nations at the regional, provincial and national levels.

From serving on the Regina YMCA board of directors to working with a group of Treaty 4 elders, chiefs and elected leaders to restore the original Treaty 4 lands to reserve status, to facilitating the transfer of the Fort Qu’Appelle Indian Hospital to First Nations control, to spearheading a national compensation package for First Nations veterans and their spouses, alongside the National First Nations Veterans’ Association, Bellegarde can directly relate to myriad issues affecting First Nations people and communities.

Picard, a respected leader and the current interim national chief, is Innu from Pessamit, Quebec. He has spent the past 22 years as regional chief for Quebec and Newfoundland, and before that he served a brief term as vice-president of the Council of Atikamekw Nation and Montagnais. Before that, he worked in communications, co-founding the Atikamekw and Montagnais Communications Corporation in 1983, and even did a brief stint working in the federal public service in 1978. He also co-authored a book, From Kebec to Québec: Five Centuries of Exchange Between Us. A career politician, the majority of his experience is high level.

He’s also been with the AFN through its long decline in public opinion and will be associated with that decline, whether warranted or not. He’s still campaigning on having been around in 1992 when Ovide Mercredi led the AFN’s charge to ensure that the inherent Aboriginal right to self-government would be enshrined in the Charlottetown Accord, an accord that was eventually defeated in a public referendum.

The third candidate, Jourdain, is Anishnaabe from Lac La Croix, Ontario. The former Treaty 3 grand chief was voted out, after almost five years as leader, by the vast majority of chiefs at a Treaty 3 National Chiefs Assembly in 2004, after he was charged with sexually assaulting an employee. These charges were later dropped when the alleged victim did not show up to the first day of the trial and could not be located by police. Jourdain was also convicted of drinking and driving the same week he left office in 2004, and he admitted to the assembly, “I am an alcoholic” and “I have got difficulties with alcohol.”

He is currently suing the Ontario Provincial Police and his accuser for upwards of $2.5 million for negligent investigation, malicious prosecution and defamation. Despite this, Jourdain has maintained the support of his home community and was elected chief from 2006 until 2011, before going on to work as a consultant for a power company. A latecomer to the race for national chief, Jourdain has not presented a formal platform publicly and he did not attend the all-candidates forum in October in B.C.

Plea to grassroots

Although Jourdain was not part of the forum discussion regarding the renewal of the AFN, he did comment in an interview with the CBC this week that if elected he would restructure the organization to include the grassroots and give people the right to vote in AFN elections. But he didn’t say how he would make this happen. This is a large promise given such a major change in election structure has never been supported by First Nations leadership, although the grassroots have pressed for it many times.

This is a large promise given such a major change in election structure has never been supported by First Nations leadership.

In October at the forum, Picard noted that in the past the AFN was able to work towards a common goal at the national level, but at the local level a lack of unity has impacted the organization’s ability to move forward. He also suggested that the AFN needs to get “our people involved” in a process of renewal, but then backtracked, offering up excuses about the AFN executive still needing to be realistic about how this can happen.

Bellegarde spoke directly to a solution in which the national chief would work as part of a team and noted that he would encourage the involvement of First Nations people at all levels to work towards the renewal of the organization, which has been called for since 2005 in a series of recommendations put forth in a report by the AFN Renewal Commission.

Throughout his speech at the all-candidates forum, Bellegarde repeated the point that he gets things done, but he doesn’t get anything done on his own.

If the AFN is to become relevant again, if the chiefs in assembly are to be unified, it will be by a leader who is respected and who is willing to build bridges — and teams, because, as the old adage states, united they stand, but divided they fall.

The AFN election for national chief will take place at a special chiefs assembly in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Dec. 9 to 11.

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