AFN must address 'real structural problems' after Atleo's resignation
Published Sunday, May 11, 2014 11:10AM EDT
Last Updated Sunday, May 11, 2014 12:39PM EDT
Shawn Atleo's resignation as national chief of the Assembly of First Nations over his support for the government's First Nations education bill is an "exciting moment of possibility" for the organization to examine its "real structural problems," experts say.
Atleo stepped down from his post, saying he did not want to be a "lightning rod" in the debate over Bill C-33, or the First Nations Control of First Nations Education Act. While there is widespread consensus that education for First Nations children living on reserves is in desperate need of reform, the bill has not received unanimous support.
Some First Nations leaders have strongly opposed the bill, arguing that it gives too much control over First Nations education to the federal government. Other leaders have called its funding formula "inadequate."
The debate over Bill C-33 has led to a number of questions about not just education reform, but the very future of the AFN. This week, Question Period got answers to some of those questions.
With Atleo's resignation and Bill C-33 on hold, what will this do to First Nations children who are waiting for help?
"It is probably the saddest part of this situation here," said Chief Ghislain Picard, the AFN's Quebec and Labrador regional chief. "We viewed, and I speak for Quebec on this issue, that the money part of the announcement should have been completely separate. We have demonstrated time and time again that there's a big gap between what our children in our schools get in terms of support compared to what any other non-Native student gets in the provincial school systems. And to us, the money is needed. Not in 2016, but today."
Does the controversy over the bill and Atleo's resignation come down to dysfunction within the AFN?
"I do believe it does speak to a lot of the disorganization within the Assembly of First Nations, particularly with regards to the role of the national chief getting too close to the Harper government," said Vicki Monague, band councillor with the Beausoleil First Nation.
"And we have to be mindful that the announcement of funding was only that, an announcement. If you look at the education bill itself, there is no reference to funding. There's only reference to a formula, which the minister's office will not disclose. So, if you actually look at the communique from the national chief he doesn't exactly endorse the education bill on behalf of the Assembly of First Nations. There was only a resolution."
Should the AFN accept some responsibility for the situation, such as the chiefs themselves for going against Atleo? And is there anybody that the federal government can now work with?
"I would like to say that probably the bill itself was inherently faulty," said Niigaan James Sinclair of the University of Manitoba. "The bill itself was interested more in the imposition of things like standards and more administrative control for Indian Affairs than ultimately it was about asserting First Nations control."
Atleo was criticized for accepting a meeting in January 2013 with the prime minister at the height of the Idle No More protests, when chiefs wanted to discuss a variety of issues, including energy, Sinclair noted.
"Since then and then continuing with that education agenda while ignoring the major energy issues, that was one of the major faults of National Chief Atleo," Sinclair said, noting that the acrimony towards the national chief extended right down to the grassroots level.
"There's a real rebuke of the Indian Act chief system amongst the grassroots, and the chiefs are trying to negotiate that while then existing within a system that really celebrates the ignoring of the grassroots. The chiefs only vote for the national chief. So we really have fundamental structural problems within the AFN that need to be addressed."
Wouldn't it make more sense, rather than have the chiefs elect the AFN leadership, that you have the grassroots vote for them?
"Well, I would say it's not the first time that this question came up," Picard said. "It comes up even in regional elections of a regional chief. And it's a very valid one, no doubt about that. But how does this happen? And what is the legitimacy of a national organization if the people from the communities vote for the national position? Does then the national chief become a chief of chiefs? These are very fundamental questions in terms of what's to follow."
"Maybe it's a question of how do we make sure that the Assembly evolves in a way that it responds to the realities of the communities? And the issue regarding the mandate of the national chief is an important one because it applies to all of us."
The AFN does not seem to be addressing problems facing First Nations: a disproportionate number of aboriginal people in the prison system, an education system that does not serve the youth, and poverty in urban centres. Is it time for another organization to take over?
"Yes," Monague said. "We don't see the benefits of the Assembly of First Nations advocacy with relation to these crises and I assert continually that when it comes to First Nations communities, we are our best advocates, we are the ones who bring governments to the table, we are the ones to negotiate agreements on behalf of our communities, we are that nation-to-nation relationship, and we always, always honour that. When it comes to those political bodies such as tribal councils, secretariats, regional bodies, I find those to be more effective in terms of advocacy."
Sinclair said the AFN "is not without its success stories," including the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that resulted from the residential Schools Settlement Agreement. But its problems are two-fold, he said. It's a government-funded lobby group, and its representation system is faulty.
"I actually see this as the most exciting moment of possibility for the AFN in the past three decades," Sincair said. "This is the chance for the AFN to take a hard look at itself, to examine the real structural problems that exist within the organization and to really become a self-sustaining body, or to hand power over to regional bodies which have achieved a bit more success."
*Questions and answers have been edited for clarity and length