Assembly of First Nations not only path to improving Indigenous lives

The next government should start to think of working with new partners and allies

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TRACADIE, NS Sept. 23, 2015/ Troy Media/ – Who said that the road to Aboriginal reform must go through the Assembly of First Nations (AFN)?

No matter which party wins, the next government is not obliged to work only with the AFN to pass legislation benefiting on-reserve First Nations people.

The Conservatives sought to build consensus for legislation with AFN’s National Chief Shawn Atleo, but support from AFN chiefs fizzled and died. If only Harper and his minister for Aboriginal Affairs had worked with a group of First Nations or a regional organization, rather than more than 600 communities, it might have been easier to build consensus. In fact, even if such an approach precluded national legislation, it might be worth the cost.

Like the United Nations, the Assembly of First Nations represents disparate nations, individually and collectively. The country does not need to always go through the UN to achieve results.

While working with the AFN can sometimes work well (I’m thinking of the residential schools apology and settlement), at other times attempting to build consensus among so many communities may only lead to failure. It may be best not to work solely with the AFN.

Of course, the government should not ignore or disrespect the AFN. The organization plays an important role in representing on-reserve First Nations, as do other Aboriginal organizations for their constituencies. It should be consulted on legislation or initiatives affecting its communities, but consultations should should not only be held with them because a “nation-to-nation” relationship between First Nations and government does not mean the AFN has to sign off on everything. Sometimes, the government must deal one-on-one with a First Nation.

Historically, positive change for First Nations has come from different sources. During the 1980s, Manny Jules, chief of B.C.’s Kamloops Indian Band, argued that Indigenous communities should have property tax jurisdiction. This, however, would require an amendment to the Indian Act. In 1985, Jules sent letters to every First Nations community in Canada. He received support from 120 First Nations. As a result, the government passed an amendment to the Indian Act in 1988, passing property tax jurisdiction to bands. More than 100 communities have embraced this model.

In the 1990s, a number of Indigenous leaders approached the government about obstacles to their economies. Those discussions led to passage of the First Nations Land Management Act, a landmark measure allowing bands to control their own lands and resources.

The First Nations Elections Act, opt-in legislation reforming voting procedures for bands under the Indian Act, is a more recent example. The legislation was the result of close collaboration between Aboriginal Affairs with the Atlantic Policy Congress of First Nations Chiefs and the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs.

Another example is the proposed First Nations Property Ownership Act, legislation designed to allow bands to fully control their own lands and, if they choose, pass it to members in individual title. Some bands supported the economic empowerment that could arise from this change and said they would support the initiative. However, many AFN chiefs voted against the proposal. Why should these supporting bands be subject to the AFN chiefs’ vote? Neither the AFN, nor any opposing community, should be able to stand in the way of these communities.

Many band members have expressed support for the First Nations Financial Transparency Act, even though the legislation was criticized by the AFN. Survey data on Prairie bands that I collected while I was a policy analyst has confirmed strong grassroots support for transparency.

Finally, there is the question of grassroots band members and their relationship to the AFN. The AFN insists it represents their interests, despite being controlled by chiefs. The AFN does not always collect grassroots input on reserves before it decides to oppose a bill. The next government must seek much more grassroots input on Indigenous policy.

Both First Nations and government must recognize the path to Indigenous improvement is not always through the Assembly of First Nations. The next government will have to think of new partners and allies.

Troy Media columnist Joseph Quesnel is an Aboriginal policy analyst who focuses on Aboriginal policy, property rights, and water market issues.

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