A new Assembly of First Nations for the people? Second thoughts on a ‘One Indian, One Vote’ AFN

Last month’s election for the Assembly of First Nations’ National Chief has once again stirred calls for change.

On election eve, for example, fellow MEDIA INDIGENA contributor Waubgeshig Rice published an op-ed on CBC.ca entitled, “How to make the AFN more relevant.” Then, in the midst of the election, author Richard Wagamese wrote an opinion piece in the Globe and Mail entitled “We want an AFN of the people.” Both articles captured a broad sentiment among Ojibwe, Cree and Lakota peoples: a desire to participate in First Nations politics beyond the Band. Indeed, this AFN election garnered considerably more attention than any in the past, a clear testament to that desire for engagement. In both cases, Rice and Wagamese eloquently identify the problem — the Assembly’s issues with political representation (or lack thereof) — and a potential solution — in effect, a new “one Indian, one vote” AFN. But in considering this idea over the past few post-election weeks, I’m not so sure it’s the answer.

In the first place, such a new ‘AFN of the people’ could lead to an even more unhelpful pan-Indianism than the current AFN perpetuates. Despite working hard to keep Metis and Inuit peoples out (and avoiding Aboriginalism), as well as “respecting our diversity as First Nations peoples” (as noted under the AFN Charter), National Chiefs have nonetheless had a tendency to claim unity among First Nations. This presumes, or at least results in, a sort of homogeneity across nations, thereby stripping away our regional, cultural and political distinctions. (In reality, the only unity that probably exists among First Nations lies within our near unanimous resentment of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada). An AFN of the people would therefore see even more diversity disappear under one umbrella, both magnifying this perception of sameness and stretching the AFN to something far beyond what it could realistically represent. The result could be a general, simplistic, and generic voice.

Alternatively, instead of striving to represent everyone, an ‘AFN of the people’ could come to suffer from issues of skewed representation, specifically, an Assembly in danger of capture by particular interests. We already see this to an extent: First Nations who lobby for treaty rights versus those who lobby for Aboriginal rights. But the potential concern here is the growing urban First Nations population (more than half of us live outside our communities already). While urban peoples are in desperate need of political representation, their significant numbers could lead to an erosion of advocacy for the very communities AFN was created to serve, and who would still require an active and focused coordinating and lobbying organization into the future.

Moreover, an ‘AFN of the people’ would effectively endorse the structural conditions that currently bedevil the organization. In other words, and I say this without irony, a completely transformed AFN along one Indian, one vote lines would maintain the status quo. The AFN is a very bureaucratic, process-oriented organization, steeped in Western-inspired legal and policy discourse. It mimics Canadian electoral politics, voting by majority (often very slim majorities). And it’s funded nearly exclusively by Canada, rendering it subject to AANDC discipline. An ‘AFN of the people’ might placate Algonquin, Pottawatomi and Dene peoples, even convey empowerment, but it seems more likely that we’d merely entrench mediocrity and stasis.

Finally, an ‘AFN for the people’ would constitute a de facto new order of government, a move which would malign actual nations. And while we’re voting once every three years for a National Chief — a superficial conception of participation and democracy Canadians have come to accept — we might see ourselves forgetting about truly solving the problem of political representation. Of course, that would mean investing in the revitalization of authentic forms of Indigenous governance, e.g., the clan system, the potlatch, the Great Law, adapting them all as needed to contemporary circumstances. It would also mean getting involved in community and nation re-building. Not least, it would mean honoring our differences and re-establishing international relations and international confederacies between and among unique nations.

The thoughts expressed here are in no way an endorsement of the AFN in its current form. Like Rice and Wagamese, I think we do need change in a serious way. I also agree that we need an outlet for the desire for political engagement that’s so apparent among Mohawk, Wet’suwet’en and Maliseet peoples. While an option to directly vote for the AFN’s National Chief is appealing (really appealing), it could lead to more harm than good. In fact, the whole discussion makes me think about the Cleveland Indians or Washington Redskins; while they’re really bad images of Native people, they’re often the only representation that exists, so we find ourselves supporting images and icons like Chief Wahoo. But it’s probably time to start cheering for another team. Rather, to start playing for another, and in a whole different league.

6 thoughts on “A new Assembly of First Nations for the people? Second thoughts on a ‘One Indian, One Vote’ AFN

  1. I thought your post would generate a lot of back and forth. Every three years or so, people want to talk about this topic as the national chief’s “best before” date nears. It doesn’t matter how many times and ways the “one Indian, one vote” is shot down. So why aren’t they commenting this time? Maybe it’s because they know it’s unworkable, expensive and ultimately useless.

    I won’t get into the “one Indian, one vote” debate except to say that I agree with just about everything you’ve written. In particular, why would anyone want to have a symbolic vote every three years for what is effectively a national band councillor and then have no influence or involvement until the next vote? How useless is that?

    There are lots of examples of ways the AFN could engage people a lot more but it would take a leap of faith on the organization’s – and the chiefs’ – part. We’re talking basic stuff; things to include average NDNs into the policy-making process and ways to make the organization more accountable to them and not only to the chiefs (which really hasn’t worked too well). Just look at unions, coops, and even some governments in Canada for good, workable, affordable examples.

    Why isn’t AFN contracting Native Studies and Indigenous Government departments at universities to produce studies and provide published reports and recommendations on policy matters? These academics are doing it anyway. But contracts might require chiefs on AFN committees to acknowledge this form of public input, make them better informed and more effective. It might also make the AFN more accountable by making it more difficult for chiefs and the AFN executive to ignore the public will on key policy issues.

    Why don’t AFN committees tap elsewhere into the NGO community? Why not make room for NGOs on committees to inform AFN on urban issues like homelessness, kids-at-risk, health, education and so on. Most AFN committees – called chiefs committees – focus on Rez issues, often paying token attention to urban issues. Why aren’t street kids, for example, guaranteed status on an AFN committee on education, training or housing? Maybe because street kids might point out how ineffective the AFN has been about missing and murdered women, sexual exploitation of children, drugs, gangs, and other hard facts of street life.

    Why wouldn’t AFN do any of the above? Insecurity? Lack of trust? Suspicion? Similar things that drive band councils to deny committee membership to urban-based organizations while at the same time demanding seats on the boards of urban friendship centres, health centres and housing coops. The AFN acts in much the same way, guarding the status quo instead of moving toward a more inclusive organization that shares power not only with chiefs but with average NDNs.

    Extend these same notions of involvement and power-sharing to the on-reserve populations and things become touchy. Some bands have active and stable NGO groups working within their communities, and band councils that listen to them. Other band councils undermine citizens groups, denying public participation band committees and boards, stacking them with loyal  employees or heads of band agencies. This makes it easier for the chief and council to control public services – and the population.  It’s also undemocratic and only encourages dependence – the very opposite of self-determination and accountability.

    If the AFN  wants to change this, it might try to be the engine and model for change instead of the excuse for doing and changing nothing.

  2. Me, too! At first I thought maybe because the article appeared on a Friday late afternoon. But after multiple re-tweets, etc., no traction. I think its because when it comes down to it, people really don’t care about the AFN. 

    I think a big part of that is because of the questions you raise, which are really good ones and speak to an organization that isn’t really interested in change or participation. It makes me resent Chiefs and question their motivations. The Ottawa Citizen was probably dead-on when they recently noted, “chiefs have their own interests, and a tendency to protect the status quo while bewailing it.” 

    But it also leads to apathy among us as Cree, Nishinaab, Mohawk peoples. I think that’s why the unity critique is so important. As long as we put up that image of unity, critique is discouraged and we fall in line – that might lead to apathy and then the status quo. 

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