AFN: A Dysfunctional Mess

Chief Rufus Copage of Shubenacadie (Indian Brook) First Nations, N.S., carries the Assembly of First Nations Eagle Staff during the grand entry as First Nations leaders, elders, youth and delegates gather for the Assembly of First Nations Special Chiefs Assembly in Ottawa on Tuesday, May 27, 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

Chief Rufus Copage of Shubenacadie (Indian Brook) First Nations, N.S., carries the Assembly of First Nations Eagle Staff during the grand entry as First Nations leaders, elders, youth and delegates gather for the Assembly of First Nations Special Chiefs Assembly in Ottawa on Tuesday, May 27, 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

From the outside looking in, First Nations are looking pretty dysfunctional these days.

The average Canadian does not get into the weeds and complexities of our issues.  They simply see that the government wants to establish legislation to improve education outcomes, set standards and invest $1.9 billion in additional funding to First Nation schools.  And they see that, for some reason, First Nations are absolutely opposed to this.

The average Canadian also sees that First Nation Chiefs are not only unhappy with the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) over negotiating this, but they see the Chiefs outright challenging the AFN and it’s leadership in the media and in front of the news cameras.

Really, this situation looks like a banana republic coup d’état by rogue militant and outspoken revolutionary generals.

There are two issues at hand:

  • the First Nations Control of First Nations Education Act (Bill C-33); and
  • the function of the Assembly of First Nations.

With regard to education, I agree that Bill C-33 is not the best vehicle to addressing substantive education reforms.  But I think the Chief’s frustration over their treatment by the Harper government has clouded just about everything.  Any initiative, no matter how positive or progressive it may be, would not be accepted by First Nation Chiefs.  Years of funding cuts, lacklustre dialogue, substandard consultation and erosion of environmental laws will do that to you.

With regard to education, I really think it’s important to define our objectives.  (1) Is it our objective to improve education outcomes and address funding inequality? or  (2) Is our objective re-assert our jurisdiction and take full control of First Nations education based on implementation of the Treaties?

It’s okay to want to work towards achieving both these objectives.  But one objective can be much more immediate and the other.  By demanding the latter, it seems like an unlikely, all or nothing proposition.  Meanwhile, the horrendous status quo continues as does the reality that the First Nation education system is woefully inadequate and ineffective, ripe with a lack of trained teachers, substandard education, schools and funding.

Regarding the function of the AFN, I get it that former-National Chief Atleo and the Executive may not have delivered an education solution according to the will of the Chiefs.  Their misinterpretation of their mandate, and inability to reconcile the consensus of the Treaty Chiefs may have been a serious error in judgment.

But for heavens sake, this is getting a little embarrassing.  There must be a way to resolve these serious issues and internal reforms amongst ourselves.  Why not treat the Assembly of First Nations as a large parliamentary caucus?  Go in united – debate and resolve the issue – and come our united.  Or at least appear to go in united and appear to come out united.

At the end of the day, if we take our frustrations about Bill C-33 and the Harper government out on our own people, we will continue to be victims of the government’s divide and conquer strategy.  As I’ve said again and again, we need to focus our efforts and our venom on our opponents, not ourselves.

First Nation organizations and leaders – whether they be community-based, regional or national level – are convenient targets of our frustration and political cannibalism.  Every two years, in almost every community across the country, that frustration is vented out by Band Council elections.  We see Chiefs and Councillors turfed and turned over almost every week.

But to take these frustrations with the AFN out in the press, microphones and bright lights of the TV cameras, to the unknowing public, this looks like a prelude to some Indian civil war.

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