Tag Archives: AFN

I come not to praise but to bury


ed: a better written and edited version is at mediaindigena.com

Shawn Atleo says he wanted to remove himself as a distraction, a lightning rod for opposition to the Federal Government’s so-called “First Nations Control of First Nations Education Act”, or Bill C-33.

It’s the kids that matter, he says. So on Friday, May 2, he resigned in the middle of his second term as National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations.

I can accept that. No reason to question his reason for quitting or his commitment to children’s education.

But a politician’s words are empty without action. In this case, Atleo had people wondering – seriously concerned – about the direction he was taking the AFN.

Examine the record and it wouldn’t be hard to conclude that the AFN under Atleo did little to advance Indigenous rights in Canada. In fact, it could be argued – and often is by his detractors – that the AFN under Atleo became an accomplice of the Harper Government and a branch office of Aboriginal Affairs, unwitting or not.

In Atleo’s defense, people will point to a string of “historic” achievements while heading the AFN. First, there was the “historic Crown-First Nations Summit”, which led to the “historic Canada-First Nations Joint Action Plan”, and finally the so-called “historic agreement with the Assembly of First Nations to reform the First Nations education system.” One expects to hear about a “historic” trip to the bathroom after all that. Or a surprise “historic” meeting in South Africa while attending Nelson Mandela’s funeral. Wait… that actually happened.  And someone did call it “historic” but I can’t remember who.

For many, this apparent bromance between Atleo and Harper went too far especially when contrasted against a groundswell of grassroots anger and discontent. The Idle No More movement captured the mood perfectly with round dances and impromptu mashups directed at a raft of Harper Government’s policies that INM said were shoved down the throats of First Nations.

  • FN Matrimonial Property Act;
  • FN Elections Act;
  • FN Financial Transparency Act;
  • FN Fiscal Management Act;
  • FN Control of FN Education Act.

In drafting the legislation above,  imposed — not co-created with the AFN – chiefs complained about a lack of consultation. In every case, First Nations said the Acts above undermined Indigenous rights and chipped away at the jurisdiction of First Nations; shifting more and more control of First Nations into the hands of the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and the Harper Government.

Atleo may be blamed for some of above. But folks should look at what else went wrong at the AFN and why. If they did, they might learn that AFN staffers — experts in their areas of research or policy development —  complained privately that they’d spend time, effort and expense developing draft policies, reports and analyses that expressed the wishes of First Nations. They’d send their work “upstairs” only to see their work gutted by the National Chief’s political staff.

AFN workers and analysts blamed individuals with the National Chief’s political staff at first. Then they noticed that changes to their work were made after Indian Affairs officials (later, Aboriginal Affairs) did some arm-twisting. The message? Make the changes or risk delays and even the loss of funding.  It didn’t take long before the National Chief’s political staff began to self-censor the work of the staff, second-guessing Aboriginal Affairs officials before they’d even read the papers.

This pattern of self-censorship apparently got worse when Atleo’s team took over. Even when there were clear directions from a majority of chiefs to the AFN to do one thing, Atleo and his senior political staff might do the opposite. Take for example, repeated instructions by a majority of chiefs to oppose Harper’s FN Education Act until key changes were made. It was a line in the sand drawn by the chiefs telling Atleo to hold fast. Don’t give in. Don’t negotiate. He did anyway.

For some time, it was clear there was a growing rift between the AFN and a majority of chiefs representing First Nations across Canada on a range of issues. This came to a head when Atleo and Harper convened a last-minute, invitation-only, news conference to unveil their “First Nations Control of First Nations Education Act”, or Bill C-33. There was almost no advance warning. It took place in southern Alberta on a Friday afternoon. It created instant suspicion among critics of the Act, and growing anger among the chiefs. The event seemed custom-made to stifle concerns of chiefs and avoid questions from journalists. It made a lot of chiefs angry because it seemed to be a deliberate snub of a few regional chiefs, who also sat on the AFN Executive, openly opposing the Act.

Atleo and his supporters might say that rebellious chiefs drove him from the AFN because he supported the Education Act and they didn’t. That’s probably part of the reason but Atleo’s own actions provoked them as well. Atleo ignored directives issued by the chiefs not once but at least twice, and both times about the Education Act. For many of the chiefs, passage of the Education Act would cause  long-term damage to Indigenous rights by surrendering parental control over the education of First Nation children to the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs. To Atleo, however, the Act would be another “historic” achievement, and an improvement in lives of people on-reserves across Canada.

“Smashing the status quo means that everyone has a role to play. The status quo should NOT be acceptable to any political party – the NDP, the Liberals or the Conservatives.  This status quo should also never be acceptable to our Chiefs and leaders.”

Across Indian country, there’s sharp disagreement how best to “smash the status quo”. On the one hand, there’s much distrust of the Harper government and its string of Acts that impact Indigenous rights – from Matrilineal Property to Education. With each Act, and complaints about lack of consultation, lack of information, lack of involvement in processes that affect their rights, suspicion and frustration grows. Each Act is seen as another blow to First Nation jurisdictions and the loss of ever more control over their lives.

No one wants the status quo. Everyone wants change. But people differ on how best to make change happen. The Federal Government seems tone deaf to First Nations concerns even though concepts of “parental control” over their own children’s education is almost universal.

Atleo’s actions didn’t create but they exacerbated divisions within the AFN. The organization pretends those divisions don’t exist. It works hard to present a united face to the public and hide the in-fighting. The AFN wants the outside world to believe it’s one big happy family. But everyone knows the AFN is crumbling and pulling itself apart. Now everyone within the AFN must share blame for refusing to confront serious issues within the organization that threaten to pull it apart.

Despite evidence, the chiefs pretended nothing was seriously wrong. The chiefs allowed the National Chief’s office to run amok, almost out of control, and to isolate itself with political staff that interfered with the expressed will of the AFN’s chiefs and their communities.

Instead of listening to the growing discontent among AFN staff, the National Chief let senior political appointees insulate him from those who make the AFN run – its staff. Meanwhile, the staff pretended if they just did their work, and didn’t complain openly, things might improve. Things only got worse.

Regional chiefs heard dissent within the AFN ranks but decided it wasn’t their business to get involved. Chiefs from across the country failed, by choice or circumstance, to find out why they no longer controlled their own organization. And why the AFN was stumbling.

Aboriginal political reporters failed to inform their audiences what wasn’t working at the AFN – an “organization of chiefs” – so they might tell their chiefs to get involved before things got worse. Instead, journalists put out canned stories carrying government labels, producing lots of interesting dots but rarely connecting them. They lobbed predictable questions and got predictable replies from politicians that added almost nothing to anything that mattered. It should’ve been THEIR story – something they owned – but they left it up to the Globe and Mail to provide serious insight into the rise and fall of Shawn Atleo.

In the end, Atleo had one last “historic” to add to his list of accomplishments. He became the first AFN National Chief to quit that job.



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Lessons in the Senate Scandal

It has only been a few days but this Wallin, Duffy and Brazeau thing is driving me nuts. What is going to happen to them? This horse and pony show is driving me crazy.

You’re not alone, my friend. This is being discussed in bars, lunch rooms, and in the back seats of taxis around the country. The whole darn thing has been driving a lot of people nuts for weeks and even months. But what’s this got to do with us Indigenous types, you ask? Everything. It’s a text book lesson in politics, from “the Hill” to the band office.

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open letter: gimme some sugar

Fightin' Whities TV

Fightin’ Whities TV

The Canadian media really should consider creating a special award for Indigenous peoples. We deserve it.  We make it so much easier for reporters and producers of the news to fill their pages and newscasts, real and digital. Continue reading

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head on over…

MI-logo… to mediaIndigena.com. A conversation between myself and the always and lovely – and talented – Rick Harp about Kickstarter crowdfunding and possibilities for political independence at native organizations like the Assembly of First Nations (or not).

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welcome back, mr. johnson

In the mid-to-late 1970s, William Johnson at the Globe and Mail (later Montreal Gazette) was a must-read columnist for anyone (especially young journalists) wanting to know more about federal/provincial politics, the developing Canadian constitutional crisis, debates on patriation of the the BNA Act, and native affairs (as it was then called).

Back then, you could count on the fingers of one hand the number of national journalists showing the least bit of interest in native issues. Johnson was anything but a cheerleader for native peoples. But he understood the policies that confronted them, and explained them to his readers. He had a keen eye for those little flashes in huge events that reveal so much, such as this that he describes in today’s G&M:

A telling moment occurred at Tuesday’s all-candidates meeting when a Quebec chief, Gilbert Whiteduck, said: “We’re telling each other what we already know. We’re telling each other that we own the land. What we need is action. And I ask all of the candidates: Are you thinking about the poorest of the poor, of our men and our women and our children who are suffering? Is your message just wait and see, I have a vision for change, while they’re suffering now, tomorrow, the day after? When will we rise?”


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what you don’t know…

…can hurt us. I mean us who live out here in these communities and territories. Not you who comment from afar based on… what?

AFN's logo

AFN's logo

Lately, I’ve had some interesting conversations about the Assembly of First Nations and the candidates running for the job of head of that organization. We talked about who might win the job and replace Phil Fontaine. We’ve discussed the way the candidates applied for the job, and the strange method the voting chiefs have chosen to conduct job interviews (elections, if you prefer).

In other words, we’ve analyzed a lot more than what we’ve seen in the coverage by the mainstream news media, and the media’s select court jesters such as Joe Quesnel. (I compare him to one of my regulars and his fascination with a well-know conspiracy theorist-cum-blogger nicknamed “Scenty.” What would life be without them?)

As we talked about the AFN, and picked apart the coverage by the Globe and Mail, the National Post, the CBC, and other news organizations, we agreed that the mainstream has this weird idea (aided and abetted by the aforementioned court jesters) that the AFN is actually a national government.

Now where did they get that idea? More to the point, how might anyone dissuade them of this ridiculous fallicy?

The mainstream news media seems hell-bent on accepting – without a shred of skepticism – that this “election of a national chief” is taking place so that Indians across Canada can select someone who will become, as one CBC reporter said, “the most powerful Indian in Canada.”

WTF!? I damn near fell off my keyboard when I heard that one. Tell me that a senior CBC national reporter did not use those words. Oh, yes, she did. Where did she get the information to back up that statement? Certainly not in any Native Studies or Canadian history or political science course. Because it don’t exist.

In our growing alarm over inaccuracies by the media’s coverage of the AFN, and the selection process of a new head of this organization, we decided to try to correct inaccuracies by explaining what the AFN is NOT. Hopefully, along the way, it might also explain what the head of this organization is NOT as well.

The AFN has never been an organization of individual status Indians. It was once an organization of regional and provincial Indian organizations. It changed into an organization representing the heads of band councils on reserves, aka “chiefs.” This is why 633 chiefs across Canada get to vote for the candidates running for Phil Fontaine’s job. This is also why there is NOT “one member, one vote.”

What’s that, Joe? You don’t get the concept? Hmmm… I wish I had some pop-up pictures. Let’s try this again, shall we?

The AFN is not a national government for status Indians in Canada, despite what some idiots (come on down, Joe) would have you believe. The AFN’s structure is closer to that of a national union, like CUPE, for instance. The union’s membership in a local (say Local 233) vote for a local representative, much like band members vote in band council elections.

Local reps may then elect regional or provincial representatives, similar to the way in which John Beaucage was elected to head up one of the regional Indian organizations in Ontario.

Local and regional union reps then get to select the national executive for CUPE. (Correct me here, but I don’t believe every member has a direct vote for national president of CUPE.) Similarly, every now and then, the chiefs cluster to select a new head of their national organization, the AFN. It was never meant to be a “one member, one vote” system. Capiche?

Why not, you ask? Have you done any homework at all, Joe? You really should try reading some day. We have some good schools you might ask about.

Similar to the relations between locals and the national office of CUPE, or any number of other unions and associations, locals guard their autonomy or authority with vigour. They resist encroachment on their turf by the regional offices, and much more so with the national office.

At the same time, the locals may recognize that there are some things the national office may do best, such as lobbying, coordinating or conducting research on issues in common across the country, monitoring government actions or changes in policy. But national executives in unions try hard to avoid encroaching upon or undermining the locals or the regional representatives. It tends to piss them off.

Y’unnerstan? To paraphrase that great philosopher, Spider-man: With great executive power comes great checks and balances upon the executive.

This isn’t rocket science, Joe. So stay awake, and listen up.

I know you want to make the head of the AFN into some sort of national king of the Indians. After all, why put up with 633 chiefs that you and your so-called think tank consider corrupt and dishonest? Do I have that right, Joe? You suggest cutting out the chiefs so that the Feds need only deal with one corrupt and dishonest bozo at the AFN. Right?

C’mon, admit it. That’s what you and the Frontier Centre think of the chiefs, and what you propose as more effective and efficient. It’s also dumb, as in: You don’t know what the f*ck you’re talking about.

Big problem. How do you get the chiefs to surrender their local authority and autonomy? Or to continue the union analogy: How do you get the head of a union local to hand over its autonomy to the national executive? First: Why the hell should they? It would be difficult enough with a union local, but the head of a reserve (unlike a union local) is also the head of a local government.

What? You didn’t factor that in when you thought things out? Maybe you didn’t think in the first place? But I digress.

That’s right. Indian band councils have constitutionally and legally recognized political powers as local governments, as per the Indian Act. Band councils can make by-laws, for instance. Okay, they can make by-laws for dog licences – but it’s still a law-making power of a legally-constituted government as defined in Canadian law.

The AFN, on the other hand, does not have governmental powers. It is an organization, a registered national corporation, representing the interests of band council chiefs. Big difference between the two. One can make laws regulating human behaviours and conditions (a government) while the other cannot (an organization).

Do you honestly think any chief in her right mind is going to hand over that kind of power to the next Phil Fontaine? Or hand over the authority to negotiate a land claim? Or make deals on oil and gas exploration? Diamond mines? Local health emergencies? Do you honestly think the folks on any reserve will let that happen? Be honest, Joe.

There are other considerations too. Why should the Mohawks surrender something they’ve repeatedly defended for more than 250 years, have never sold or surrendered, have not had taken away in war or by conquest. Wanna guess? After all, you claim to be Mohawk, Joe. No answer? Can’t figure it out? Refuse to admit it?

Their sovereignty, Joe, as an Indigenous nation. Confused? Or just in deep denial?

More to the point, I dare you to come on down to Mohawk country and ask the folks down here to put their rights into the hands of a Plains Cree, or an Ojibway, or a Coast Salish. I can predict a very tragic outcome in your future, if you decide to do so. The folks down this way would run yer sorry butt out of town faster than the SQ on July 11. I’m just saying.

Go ask the Cree of Quebec to hand over the James Bay Agreement to the AFN and to the next Phil Fontaine. I double dog dares ya.

Next, go ask the Nisga’a to do the same with their Agreement. I think you’d be called a lot of very rude names.

But then ask yourself: Why would those two groups consider such an idiotic suggestion in the first place?

I doubt whether you could ever find a single Cree in all nine communities across northern Quebec, or a single Nisga’a citizen in their B.C. communities,willing to say they’d voluntarily agree to hand over their rights to the AFN (or anyone hoping to become the next Fontaine).

Finally, Joe, the AFN is not now – nor has it ever been a national government. It was never designed to act like one, or to be one. It was created to do a very particular job, and that’s all. I know, Fontaine didn’t like the structure and spent a lot of time and money trying to convince the chiefs to hand over their power. He failed though.

Similar to the office of a national union, the AFN was designed to conduct and compile research in certain areas in support of local reserve or regional initiatives, to monitor governments for changes in policy and law, to lobby government to make changes in policy and law that the chiefs see as advantageous to their populations. It was designed to work from the bottom-up; not the other way around.

The head of the AFN is a national spokesperson, a national lobbyist, a national figurehead with no real power except to run a national office effectively and efficiently. He ain’t no king of the Indians. The media made him out to be the “11th premier” in the mid-1980s, but that didn’t change reality. Get it?

Still, you and most of the news media seem to have decided – without a single fact to back up this lame-brained idea – that this is what the AFN must be or become. Ergo, your dumber and dumberer “one member, one vote” idea.

If you and most of the mainstream media reporting on this story would only educate yourselves before shooting off your big yaps, spreading disinformation, you might actually help advance organizational change.

Instead, you seem determined to lead from a position of ignorance. In doing so, you serve no one but the gods of stupidity – not to mention doing the Canadian public a huge disservice.

Nuff sed.


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i come not to praise

Before I begin, let me clarify that Phil Fontaine is a nice person. That has nothing to do with his record as a politician, his life as an Indian Affairs administrator, his past as a survivor of residential schools. He is the sum of many parts.

People tend to get a bit misty, though, when a long timer like him takes the final bow, isn’t pushed but steps off the stage lightly under his own power, wanders off to other pursuits. They also tend to overlook some of the things that really bugged them when he was around. It may be human nature but to look only at the good and ignore other sides of the ledger is a missed opportunity. Thus, at least with the mainstream media, this is how it’s been with Phil Fontaine during his last days at the Assembly of First Nations.

White reporters, and they are the ones that matter here, measure Fontaine by different yardsticks than those used by Indigenous reporters. Mainstream reporters look at Fontaine and the AFN from a dominant society perspective. They can’t help it. That’s where they live. It determines their viewpoint.

Here’s an even bigger over-simplification. They measure Fontaine’s success or failure in terms of how well he was liked, understood by, managed to get along with those institutions and the people in their world. That’s the white world. That includes Parliament, government agencies, and federal and provincial politicians.

Indigenous reporters, certainly not all of them, should look at Fontaine’s list of accomplishments and measure them from other perspectives. How well did Fontaine champion their peoples’ causes, stand with them when it mattered most, hold true to his promises to them or to the principles he asked them to believe in? Because for the most part, the Canadian Parliament isn’t theirs, federal and provincial departments are antagonistic to their rights, and white politicians… Well, where to begin?

I noted a list of things that both Fontaine and the mainstream media checked off as his major successes. They include the Indian Residential Schools settlement, the national apology on residential schools by the Prime Minister, and the appointment of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. I also heard Fontaine on CBC Radio add to that list one of his pet projects: devolution of the Department of Indian Affairs. More on that last one a bit later. First, let’s examine those first three.

The Residential Schools settlement wasn’t Fontaine’s. It was a class action lawsuit brought by hundreds of survivors. Fontaine may be a survivor but to give him all the credit denies all of those poor bastards who decided against all odds and every nightmare to hire lawyers and take on the federal government and the churches. AFN and Fontaine may have helped, but the survivors fought for years almost all by themselves. The federal government and the churches cut an out-of-court settlement because they did not want to face those survivors in court. They had ripped apart the souls and families of Indigenous peoples across Canada, consigned them and their children’s children to living hells. The federal government and those churches cut their losses because the survivors held a mirror up to Canada, and Canadians were disgusted by what they saw.

Everything else flowed from that out-of-court settlement. The appointment of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission and Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s national apology were part of that out-of-court settlement. White reporters tend to overlook that and attribute it all to Fontaine and the AFN while ignoring the survivors and their often lonely fight for dignity, and for all of those who died along the way. Fontaine helped – but it was their victory. No one should ever take any of that away from them.

Now, about the last point: “devolution” of Indian Affairs.

First, just what does that mean? According to Fontaine, it was one of his big successes in Manitoba. It was something he hoped to export throughout the country. It meant at various times dismantling Indian Affairs, taking over Indian Affairs, Indians managing Indian Affairs. There were a lot of people who supported Fontaine and this plan. But, practically, stripped of rhetoric and hyperbole, what did Fontaine’s big success – and there may be a few forensic accountants who might disagree – really mean?

To some it meant getting rid of the white man lording over Indians. It meant putting people in charge for a change, people who really knew the communities and the problems. Enough with some know-nothing bureaucrat in Ottawa nickle-&-diming programs that might improve lives. Of course, that went beyond wishful thinking and deep into Twilight Zone territory.

Indian Affairs, the Indian Act, the reserve system – they’re all part of Canada’s system of internal federal colonies. We are not in a post-colonial Canada. Canada has colonies and Indians are colonized peoples. Canada may have imposed Canadian citizenship (no one asked), imposed enfranchisement (connotes stripping of rights to Indians), and recognized “existing Aboriginal rights” in the Canadian constitution (staples the Indian Act to the foreheads of each and every Indian in Canada). But that changes little in the lives of Indigenous peoples because the system remains firmly in place.

European kingdoms asserted colonial powers over Indigenous peoples on other continents, imposed their own versions of government, institutions, beliefs and displaced the Indigenous versions in order to “civilize” the savage often in the most uncivilized ways. But that was just an excuse, a way to rationalize brutal behaviour and minimize guilt. Stripped of the patriotic and heroic versions, also taught in Canadian history classes, it was actually all about land and resources. It might have been furs and lumber way back when, or oil and uranium today, but it’s still the same system at work.

It wasn’t as though Fontaine didn’t have examples when he came up with his idea of devolution of Indian Affairs. While in South Africa, if he had bothered to ask, he would have learned that both the British and the Boer tried to undermine the anti-apartheid leadership by offering to devolve the Department of Bantu Affairs. It was more efficient, and effective to create “Bantu homelands” such as Ciskei or Transkei, and hand over local administration to Blacks. Toward the end, they even proposed that “coloureds” elect their own MPs to sit in a separate “coloured Parliament.”

It didn’t work: not because a few would compromise their principles and support these initiatives. It didn’t work because the vast majority of those oppressed by apartheid laws understood that it was cosmetic change only, a set of lies and illusions. They understood that the whole system of laws and policies that was apartheid would remain, only now under Black or coloured management.

Essentially, that is what Fontaine was proposing in Manitoba, and hoped to achieve with the Department of Indian Affairs in Ottawa. What Fontaine proposed as “devolution” would not dismantle the Indian Act system. It would merely replace white management with a red one while keeping the system firmly intact.

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