Reinventing the AFN

NationalPost.com – Opinions/Editorial – Reinventing the AFN

Published: July 23, 2009

The Assembly of First Nations (AFN), which picked its new leader yesterday, often is spoken of as if it were the authentic voice of native peoples in this country. But in truth, it is a lobby group for band leaders. And its single-minded agenda reflects that.

If we had one suggestion to give the new AFN chief, it would be this: Turn the group into something more than a broken record asking Ottawa for more money. Canada’s native leadership is full of intelligent, well-spoken political figures — including Phil Fontaine, the outgoing AFN leader. But it is difficult to take them seriously when their agenda seems so predictably and uniformly geared toward expanding the budgets, and limiting the spending constrains, of band chiefs.

In principle, of course, there is no shame in lobby groups that seek more money from Ottawa: In this regard, the AFN is one organization from among hundreds. But because ordinary natives have no high-profile group to represent their interests in Ottawa, the result of the AFN’s leadership-centric focus is that progress on helping reserve-resident native rank-and-file gets low priority in Parliament. The classic example in this regard is Robert Nault’s Chretien-era First Nations Governance Act, which would have mandated budgetary accountability and democratic election procedures on reserves. That bill was killed when the AFN signalled to the Liberal leadership that they didn’t feel like being bound by the new strictures.

The AFN has similarly opposed new Conservative rules that immediately extend human-rights protections to reserves. Their objections are couched in the language of “tradition,” but the real sticking point is that native leaders now would be accountable to federal human-rights norms — especially in regard to women’s rights, on which many native bands have appalling records.

In short, the next AFN leader must attempt to rise above his narrowly defined constituency and try to reach out to all natives. Indeed, the organization would benefit from a new voting system that opened up the AFN leadership ballot to all natives. Such a move would not only give the AFN more credibility in the eyes of Canadians, its leadership would be more motivated to find real solutions to the many urgent problems besetting Canada’s native population.

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