A few years ago in Ottawa, something strange happened. What took place had all the earmarks of open democracy in Indian country but with few of its safeguards. It touched upon fundamental questions for Indian nations – and for Canadians – but avoided debating them. Shining lights in Indian country produced a glitzy report with a foregone conclusion. It was promoted by an expensive PR firm, hired to sell it to Canadians – if not to Indians. It raised more questions than it answered; some of them uncomfortable questions that have been around for a long time.

The effort cost the Assembly of First Nations lots of money, but went absolutely nowhere. It was supposed to reform the AFN; to transform it from an “organization of chiefs” into something else. The report fudged what that “something else” might be. It left Indians, and the chiefs, guessing when it should have proposed something definite. If that weren’t bad enough, journalists (native and non-) across Canada failed miserably to ask basic questions before, during and after this fiasco. Here’s a rough sketch of what happened.

The AFN chiefs dumped Fontaine in favour of Matthew Coon Come eight summers ago. The chiefs felt Fontaine was too cozy with the federal government. A career civil servant and closet Liberal, the chiefs considered him soft on Indigenous rights, someone who would compromise rather than fight. Coon Come, though hailed by the chiefs as a tough advocate, was a lame duck almost before he began. His “rights-based” approach angered the federal government. He insisted that government road blocks could only be broken once Canadian governments acknowledged and recognized nation-to-nation relationships domestically, and Indigenous rights internationally.

Ottawa made clear it had no time for Coon Come. “Nation-to-nation” recognition was the opposite direction that the federal government wanted Indians to go. It launched a hugely successful PR campaign to spin Coon Come from a Cree lawyer and peaceful environmental activist, into a dangerous radical who could not be trusted. Indian Affairs slashed the budgets of both the AFN and band councils. The federal government gave the chiefs a choice – dump Coon Come or face even more cuts.

At the next AFN election, Ottawa also made clear it wanted Fontaine back. Coon Come had refused to run again. Although five candidates, one a woman, ran for the job only Fontaine had Ottawa’s nod. It was no surprise when Fontaine was elected. This is not a comment on Fontaine’s integrity. It is a statement on the degree of manipulation by the federal government on the internal affairs of the national Indian organization in Canada, and how easily it was for Ottawa to do so. It did not stop there either.

Fontaine had chafed at comments during his first term that he was little more than a national figurehead, a national spokesperson and chief lobbyist employed by band council chiefs across Canada. Ever since the days of the Meech Lake and Charlottetown Accords, which Fontaine had helped scuttle, a couple of basic but key questions kept popping up: What kind of organization was the AFN? More to the point, what was the role of the “national chief”? Was he the “eleventh premier,” as the Canadian media had tagged the position ever since Meech Lake? Or was he merely a national mouthpiece, with no real power; able to act only on direction from the chiefs?

To answer these questions and more, the AFN commissioned a “blue ribbon” panel to examine the issues, hold regional hearings, commission research, and produce a report. Some of the questions facing it and Indians across the country: Was the AFN structure, as an organization of band chiefs, still relevant or workable? Was the AFN an assembly of “first nations”? To what degree did “residual sovereignty” of Indian nations, such as the Mi’kmaq, Mohawk, or Nisga’a, continue to apply? Was the AFN, as an organization bound by the Indian Act, helping to erode that “residual sovereignty”? Was the AFN evolving into, or was it preferable to become, a national government (displacing Indian nations in the process)? Should each registered status Indian have a direct vote to choose a national chief?

But there was a problem. The commission paid lip service to the key questions in favour of superficial ones. Questions to be avoided: On residual sovereignty, were Indian nations still nations in the context of international law? Were Indians citizens of their Cree or Nisga’a nations? Or were they compromising their citizenship by participating as “status Indians” and band councils, both creations of the Indian Act? In short, how far along to assimilation were Indians in Canada?

Instead of tackling these larger questions and possibly sparking a national debate that might have gone far beyond Indian country, the report concentrated on questions that stayed within the safe, narrow confines of the Indian Act. It asked the same question over and over, but with different words. As a national organization of band council chiefs, what was the best administrative model to follow? How to change the AFN from an “organization of chiefs?” How to increase the executive power of the national office? Were direct elections by every registered status Indian across Canada the answer?

There were problems. The commissioners and their report chose to answer what the national chief wanted to know — not what Indians wanted and desperately needed to know. Could the national chief change the balance of power within the organization, stripping the chiefs of much of their power, without provoking a major fight? Could the national office get rid of constraints so it could make deals and sign agreements without seeking the support of a majority of chiefs first? Fortunately, for the federal government, this was exactly what Ottawa wanted and what it was prepared to pay for. Funding for the AFN increased, with former cuts largely restored with one important difference.

From that point on, how Ottawa funded native organizations would change. Core funding was out. Funding by specific projects was in, with clear restraints in place to ensure the AFN and other native organizations could not wander off-track anymore. Project funding has become the main source of income for native organizations ever since.