The Assembly of First Nations (AFN) is the national status Indian organization in Canada. It has never taken criticism very well. When I worked there for a short time many years ago, I noticed that the organization spent more time trying to control and restrict the flow of information out of the place than telling people what it was doing and why. Admittedly, that experience has coloured my perspective of the AFN ever since regardless who heads it.
National chiefs have come and gone, usually seeking the position with big promises for more openness and transparency. They have all apparently forgotten that promise once in the job. Then again, what politician hasn’t done the same regardless of race, colour or political party? There are certain things that must be done behind closed doors if anything is ever to get done.
Instead of drawing the blinds when absolutely necessary, the AFN (and it isn’t the only national Indigenous organization that does this) routinely adopts a “need to know” policy even among its own staff. For some reason, organizations like the AFN form protective rings around their national mouthpieces. That’s because of the complicated and convoluted nature of their jobs. These guys (usually guys except at the Native Women’s Association of Canada) believe their own propaganda. They believe they head up national governments already, and expect to be treated as such.
This is not to say that these groups don’t do valuable work – they do. Nor is it to say that they cannot or should not aspire to establish real national political entities with real political power. There are examples around the world of Indigenous groups working on these objectives. Some are building their governments from the ground up. Others retain and revitalize governments that have suffered under years of colonial rule and policies aimed at stamping out any notion of self-rule. But there is a big difference between image and substance.
The AFN is not a national government, or a parliament, or a house of representatives. It is an office that was planned for two purposes – to support the lobbying efforts of band council chiefs across the country and to provide a national spokesperson for their voices. You can blame the Canadian media for much of the confusion about the AFN’s role, and that of its national spokesperson. This similarly confused bunch did not want to be faced with diversity; 630 or so chiefs, some claiming nation status, speaking dozens of languages, dozens of nationalities like Ojibway and Mi’kmaq. Journalists and editors demanded – and got – neat, simple, simplistic symbols such as one generic spokesthingy called the national chief. Saved time. Saved the reporters the effort of thinking.
That is one reason some reporters still quote the head of the AFN on issues concerning Inuit, or the Métis. These reporters don’t know any better. Believe me. I’ve seen it. I’ve seen reporters walk in for interviews at the AFN on an issue particular to the Métis or the Inuit, and expect the head of the status Indian organization to provide a quote. Or to answer generic questions on behalf of all Indigenous peoples in Canada as though he (usually he) has a clue, or represented and could speak for all Indigenous peoples. He can’t, but he also doesn’t want to disappoint the reporter either (a sign that he doesn’t know what he’s doing). So he answers the question, and the illusion continues.
In order to maintain the illusion, groups like the AFN draw curtains around the office of the national spokesperson. This is one of the reasons for such secrecy at these organizations. Another is self-delusion and a misplaced sense of noblesse oblige. Some of these guys (usually guys) begin to believe their own bullshit. They actually believe they have real power, not just scraps from the federal government’s table. This is one of the reasons why they get so tetchy when people begin to criticise or to question them.
So in conclusion for anyone interested in studying or learning more about Indigenous peoples in Canada, remember this: (to paraphrase Yogi Berra) Indigenous politics in Canada is 90 per cent half mental.