Why a truly independent First Nations political voice could be just $1 or $2 away

Yesterday, as I watched the decisive re-election of Shawn Atleo as the National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, my thoughts couldn’t help but turn to the perennial question hanging over the AFN: as an organization funded so heavily from the coffers of the Canadian government, just how independent a voice is it, anyway?

The question is a fair one. As the old adage goes, when you bite the hand that feeds you, the hand’s owner seldom likes it. Some argue we only need to see what happened to one-term National Chief Matthew Coon Come for evidence of that at work in Indian country. Among other battles he waged against the Canadian government, Coon Come helped lead the charge in 2000 against proposed reforms to the Indian Act, under what came to be known as the First Nations Governance Act. The Indian Affairs minister at the time, Liberal MP Robert Nault, was none too pleased with the Assembly’s opposition. Cuts to AFN’s funding followed not long after, and its annual disbursement from Indian Affairs dropped in one year from $19.8 million down to $12 million, a cut of just under 40% (by 2003, Coon Come’s last year in office, that figure was further reduced to $6 million). Today, some observers look back at this budgetary collapse as a clear cut case of an AFN leader being “punished” by the feds for attempting “to steer a more radical course.”

Now, however accurate or appropriate this characterization may or may not be — National Chiefs seem to be routinely positioned by pundits as occupying one of two polarized ends of the conciliatory/confrontational continuum — it does highlight one inescapable truth: financially speaking, the AFN has next-to-no control over its own destiny. And that is never a recipe for independence. As a 2003 Windspeaker editorial put it, “the AFN is funded by government and indirectly controlled by government and is not yet a true First Nation institution.”

Nine years after those words were written, not much has changed in that regard; the Assembly effectively remains monetarily beholden to the Canadian government. Something else that hasn’t changed over that time are criticisms about how AFN is structured. Critics decry how only Chiefs can vote for the National Chief. They call for a national grassroots alternative where all First Nations people can vote for their leader.

And yet, as a recent First Perspective editorial asked,

[If] so many people out there — people who are educated, who are capable, are saying this on Facebook — are disenchanted with the status quo, [why] hasn’t this sentiment coalesced into a grassroots organization to replace the AFN as a genuine political movement?

Here too, the question is a fair one. But, in the era of crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter, it may no longer be an impractical one.

Allow me to explain. While the magical series of tubes known as the internet may suffer from occasional bouts of hype, its ever-evolving capacity to coordinate millions upon millions of bits and bytes at the speed of light has now made many things possible in 2012 that were simply unimaginable even three years ago (coincidentally, the first time Atleo was elected). Not the least of these is crowdfunding. With the click of a button (indeed, many clicks of many buttons), individuals can now effectively amass a significant sum of money towards the cause of their choice, each of them submitting one or two dollars at a time through an automated on-line intermediary. Watch that happen a million times and — poof! — you ‘suddenly’ see one or two million dollars aggregate. Google <crowdfunding success stories> if you’re still dubious about how it can happen.

As the late Johnny Carson would say (ask your parents), this is wild and wacky stuff. And if you believe as I do that a single dollar without strings attached is worth $10 or even $100 of government-controlled funding, it won’t take long for you to see the technological potential here for funding the creation and on-going operation of a truly independent Indigenous political voice, one free of the kind of outside meddling we’ve seen exercised to date.

Could that voice be the AFN itself? It’s entirely possible. The grassroots, distributed model of funding I’ve described is open to any organization that sees merit in it. Whether that might include the Assembly is, as they say, an open question.

Allow me to end these admittedly back-of-napkin musings with this final thought: First Nations folk, maybe it’s time to put your toonies where your tongue is.

11 thoughts on “Why a truly independent First Nations political voice could be just $1 or $2 away

  1. Existing funding processes by the Federal Government allow it to dictate the terms of its “so-called” relationships with the AFN, its provincial and territorial members, and individual band councils. It’s a bureaucratically abusive relationship, hardly mutually beneficial or anything like an equitable relationship. It’s called “program funding” with poor people almost held hostage, doomed to live in sometimes atrocious living conditions in many reserves. 

    The attitude from Ottawa is: Sign the agreements or be denied program funds; for example, new housing or housing repairs, services for children in pre-school and elementary, language survival programs, elder care, etc. It’s more a form of political and social coercion and control than a form of social support. It demands organizations like AFN, PTOs, and band councils shut up and do what they’re told. Obey or people back home suffer the consequences.

    The Feds, prodded and aided by the anti-Indian rights brigade in the Canadian electorate, call it accountability. But whatever accountability in these programs isn’t to the people living in the communities where it belongs. The recipients of these programs have no way of ensuring their programs are delivered properly on any level – nationally or locally. Instead, the “accountability” is to the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and the Federal Government – which does nothing to encourage local responsibility and accountability. It results in the opposite.

    Many right-wing, anti-Indian commentators love to write about the predictable results with terms like “corrupt” or “dictatorship” and “unaccountable”  band councils. There’s some truth to this. Isolated cases of theft and embezzlement. More often, it’s a case where Indians, faced with crisis situations created by systemic underfunding decade after decade shifted money from one area (say education) to another area (like housing) out of necessity.

    Indians didn’t create this system or the situations but they take the blame for something setup by the Federal Government. The Minister of Aboriginal issues pious statements of innocence on the part of his department while condemning those pesky Indians and imposing ever more restrictive funding regimes. People in communities are victims – but not as much by corrupt practices at the band council as as completely unaccountable funding systems by Federal design.

    Crowdsourcing will not resolve this situation. It is more of a political than financial problem. Expecting the AFN to raise enough money by crowdsourcing to meet just national housing needs on reserves across Canada year after year after decade would be completely unrealistic.  What needs to change is the funding schemes imposed by the Federal Government – a complete redesign that will meet the basic needs of communities and allow for independent political expression as well.

    It isn’t only the Federal Government that needs to change the way it handles funding. There are basic needs that aren’t being met so long as Indian organizations siphon off program funding  that should go – first – to meet community needs but is used instead to drive political work.

    It’s also about priorities. One can only guess how much money AFN paid to hold its annual general assembly at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre this year, in one of the priciest cities in the world with some of the priciest hotels and restaurants, in order to impress voting chiefs? The news media? Governments? Someone should be asking how many homes could have been built, teachers hired, and nurses contracted instead.

  2. Can’t says I fundamentally disagree with anything you’ve written here insofar as it applies to how First Nations program funding is structured but it’s clear I have not been specific enough in what I envisioned by my proposal to crowdfund national (or, for that matter, regional) Aboriginal political bodies.

    So, for example, when you wrote “Expecting the AFN to raise enough money by crowd[funding] to meet just national housing needs on reserves across Canada year after year after decade would be completely unrealistic,” that was not what I meant to suggest. What you describe is squarely in the realm of program funding, which apparently AFN HQ receives a percentage of in exchange for its delegated role of administrating such programs. That apple is different than the orange I was after here.

    My intended target for crowdfunding was any/all operational requirements separate and apart from the program administrative type of “revenue” flow you describe.  In short, for just the political side of things. Sorry I wasn’t clearer on that.

    Taken together with mine, your points actually serve to tap into a much bigger discussion about the purpose of AFN: to act as a purely political advocate that promote independence for First Nations, or, to serve as merely some kind of technocratic receptacle that oversees the budgets for federal government initiatives, i.e., as a conduit for programs/services ultimately designed and evaluated according to non-Aboriginal imperatives?

    I guess it all comes down to the “business model” for the AFN. Should it be based on membership dues or should it be based on these sort of ‘sub-contractor’ fees?

  3.  Let’s examine your first “orange” then as well as the feasibility of crowdfunding as a means of funding political initiatives of the Assembly of First Nations – or as you ask a “grassroots” alternative to the AFN?
    Here’s what you referred to (via the First Perspective) and wrote in your original post:
        “a grassroots organization to replace the AFN as a genuine political movement?”
        “Here too, the question is a fair one. But, in the era of crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter (www.kickstarter.com), it may no longer be an impractical one.”

    I didn’t address the notion of a “grassroots alternative” because I can’t see how an alternative to the AFN – grassroots or otherwise – would fare any better to advance Indigenous rights and self-determination by Indigenous nations. I’m not praising AFN because I give it a low grade on both counts: Indigenous rights and advancing self-determination. But a so-called grassroots alternative to AFN would very likely muddle things up even more by piling on more layers of delusion on top of those already there. How?  By re-introducing that tired old concept of “pan-Indianism.” 

    I deliberately avoid the phrase “first nation” here because it’s come to mean band councils (federally controlled) instead of the greater Mi’kmaq nation, Haida nation, or Huron-Wendat nation to name a few.  Band councils (represented by chiefs) created this term to imply that they’re not really administering the Indian Act, even though we all know they are. The AFN should really be called the Assembly of Band Councils.

    The delusion created by the term “first nations” is dangerous because it implies that band councils are free to act, to govern, to run their own affairs as if there weren’t a system of colonialism at work here. It’s become such a strong illusion that many band councils (and the AFN) believe it to be the real world. Perhaps worse, so does the average Canadian. How else to explain Stephen Harper’s bizarre statement that Canada doesn’t have a history of colonialism, and the consternation expressed by the anti-Indian brigade and more than a few in the mainstream media when average folks across Indian country screamed back: Bullshit! 

    A grassroots alternative to the AFN, funded by Kickstarter or some other crowdfunding scheme might – would – make such delusions even more “real.”  Think about yet another “Congress of Aboriginal Peoples”-type organization and what a horribly bad acid trip that would be. 

    Of course, if the AFN wants to aspire to the status quo, or help the federal government fine-tune the present system of colonialism by helping to tweak the Indian Act, then tear down the AFN by all means and as soon as possible.

    Now for your second “orange.” 

        “In short, my crowdfunding proposal was meant for just the purely political advocacy side of things.”

    Kickstarter, as a means of funding independent political initiatives whether at AFN or some “grassroots” alternative probably wouldn’t work too well. Would a Kickstarter project that said let’s fund some fat cats in Ottawa really fly?

    Would a vague “gee, I wanna change the world” proposal work? Who would donate money to something like that – and why? I wouldn’t – not when I’ve got Amnesty International and Doctors Without Borders doing real work and saving lives. (fyi: I donate to both)

    What kind of Kickstarter project might work? Should it be something specific to educate our kids for the coming battles? Maybe community-based projects such as… buying kids computers or books to set up a library at a reserve school? The Feds won’t fund computers or libraries for reserve schools.

    Shocking but true despite all the crap coming out of the Minister’s office about supporting education.

    Why not a start Kickstarter project to install high-speed internet at a reserve school, something also not funded by the Feds and a major impediment in many communities (such as mine within rock-throwing distance of Montreal) where dial-up is the norm. Why not a Kickstarter project to buy a dialysis unit for a reserve health centre?

    The point is if AFN or any other group wants my money, they’re going to have to prove to me that they’re doing something I can support. I ain’t gonna give them or anybody else money just because they’re an Indian organization. If their political goals and actions don’t match mine, to hell with them.

    As for your idea that perhaps they should build in a system of membership fees (in AFN’s case, fees on band council memberships), wouldn’t that make the AFN more accountable? Why should AFN or a “grassroots” alternative ask for donations from average Indians (who can ill afford it) or average Canadians? Jeezum, why don’t I just go on Kickstarter because I just happen to have this bridge in Brooklyn that needs a new coat of paint?

    Finally, what’s in it for me as a citizen of the Mohawk nation? The AFN and the system it represents studiously avoids recognition of my traditional government. Y’know, my Nation. So what’s the pay-off for my people and my community? Why would I want to contribute to the care and feeding of fat cats in Ottawa who perpetuate the myth of independence while aiding and abetting Canadian colonialism?

    Convince me. Please. I’m all ears.

  4. Maybe every year on Treaty day or “Canada” day all of us white settlers could contribute our $5 to this, as a way of recognizing our end of the Treaty. 

  5. Fantastic article! You’ll be pleasantly surprised to know that Canadian First Nation, Inuit and Metis innovators already have the 1st crowdfunder in the country exclusively for Aboriginal talent to raise both funds and awareness for current or upcoming projects! 

    Founded in January of 2012 out of Vancouver, we are committed to making sure there are opportunities for our men, women and youth have an alternative departure from business as usual and get creative with the way they choose to impact the communities in which they live! Check us out at http://www.fundweaver.com today! 

  6. Dan, salient points all, and, once again, I find myself agreeing with lots of it. Your cynicism is understandable and merited. Let me just respond to a few of your points.

    “I didn’t address the notion of a ‘grassroots alternative’ because I can’t see how [any] alternative to the AFN… would fare any better to advance Indigenous rights and self-determination by Indigenous nations…. [It] would very likely muddle things up even more … [by] re-introducing that tired old concept of “pan-Indianism.”

    I think there’s a hugely valuable debate to be had here about the appropriate forms and scale of Indigenous political organization and affinities. I agree with your implicit point that band councils — and AFN is effectively an uber-council of such councils — are imposed mechanisms and institutions. I agree too with your point that lumping/muddling Indians together the way AFN does — ie their main ‘unifying’ trait being their shared subjection to the whims and ways of Aboriginal Affairs — is insufficient to meet the needs of Indigenous nations. Like you say, it’d be better for these individually tiny councils to instead look at federating along cultural/linguistic lines (eg Mi’kmaq nation, Haida nation, Cree nation), pre-contact, ancestral affiliations that transcend the provincial boundaries PTOs have, for whatever reason, decided to adopt and even internalize.

    However, I don’t see why instituting and resourcing an alternative via crowdfunding is intrinsically insufficient and “probably wouldn’t work too well.” And, to answer your question, would “a Kickstarter project that said ‘Let’s fund some fat cats in Ottawa’ really fly?” Well, structured and sold that way, of course not! 🙂

    (Note to self: don’t ask Dan to help set up pitch. LOL)

    Maybe I’ve oversold and overstated this. But, look: political parties rely on individual contributions, NGOs rely on individual contributions and Kickstarter and Indiegogo make such contributions faster and easier. That’s all I’m saying.

    And so, if it was to be the case that no Indigenous political entity — one putting forth a specific and transparent agenda, accompanied by an accountable framework of governance — steps up as a cause deserving of such contributions, well, they shouldn’t get any money. Simple as that.

    As always, thanks for making me think, Dan, and indulging this line of thought.

  7. You took five months to reply… so forgive my one month delay. And now, I hereby pre-emptively withdraw from the Kickstarter campaign slogans committee for Ottawa fat cats. (sheesh) 🙁

    Let’s ask ourselves, and readers, what might be possible through more specific crowdfunding projects:
    – computers and Broadband for reserve schools;
    – libraries for reserve schools;
    – a farming program and produce market;
    – alternative (green) energy-efficient modular homes project;
    – dialysis machines for health centres;
    – supports to Indigenous foster parents (fewer kids in custody);
    – language materials;
    – support for children with disabilities;
    – physical recreation for elderly Indigenous peoples;
    – and so on.

    I know, I know. This isn’t supporting political work. You’re idea is to cut at least some of the Federal gov’t’s puppet strings so Indigenous orgs like the AFN can walk like real advocates for FNs, and not just talk about it. As it is now, if they mouth off, they get funding cuts.

    But crowdfunding (Kickstarter, et al) could never be long-term, multi-year dependable or anything more than project by project. So even if the public – including you and me – decided to support even one of these projects, what would it look like? What could the AFN or any similar organization do to be more effective and less of a sock-puppet to Ottawa.

    Big picture stuff? Research? Court and legal projects? Public education?

    Support to a research project on a specific policy area with wide publication and dissemination as an objective? Weekly “TED Talks” (“ideas worth spreading”) clones produced across the country on Indigenous issues, at different venues across Canada, distributed online for free for one whole year?

    More specifically, internships and training, library buys (research docs), publish a journal or book based on original research into public policy? How about global online conferences on key issues facing Indigenous peoples for wide use in education?

    More importantly, does any of this really turn my crank enough to separate me from my moolah? Will it turn anybody’s crank? Maybe I’m just not thinking creatively enough.

    I’m not sure any of that would turn on anybody where I live. I’d like to think so but…. I’m not sure. And that’s being optimistic.

    Is there another way of raising funds besides the Kickstarter model that might be more appropriate?

    I’ve put a lot of question marks in this reply. It shows how confusing the topic is for me. I understand and appreciate crowdfunding but understand present realities and how political organizations run as well.

    I’m sure the Cons and Dippers have had this very conversation many toonies ago and have wondered how they might exploit and benefit from online technologies and social media. But I haven’t seen anything innovative.

    It still comes down to a party (organization) begging for dollars, demanding fees for membership, or both. Very traditional, energy sucking, time consuming and difficult.

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