The more things change, the more they stay the same. June is Aboriginal History Month and is being subsumed by the overwhelming, and annoying, Canada 150 activities and preparations, while the Canadian government is continuing to not do the right thing while promoting how they are doing the right thing. The difference, of course, is this is Mr. Trudeau and not Mr. Harper, which seems to be a surprise to everyone except those of us who have ever paid attention. The Canadian government has always acted against the interests of First Nations people, regardless which of political party has been running the show at any given time. Trudeau promised a new relationship, a Nation-to-Nation relationship with First Nations. As per the norm, this is proving not to be the case.
Into this regular feature of Canada-First Nations relations, the Assembly of First Nations has re-emerged as the titular voice of the First Nations, despite the fact that this is just not true. The AFN represents the Canadian recognized Chiefs of the First Nations and not the actual people. It is mind-boggling that they keep claiming the voice of the people, well, not really, they keep making the claim and the federal government keeps acknowledging them as such despite the fact that they are not a representative body, they are a lobby group for Chiefs and they are all too often not in step with the needs and challenges faced by First Nations people on the ground. In fact, the current leadership pushed out the former leadership because of its too cozy relationship with the Harper regime and its presumption to be able to sign binding agreements with the government on behalf of First Nations people. The outcry, led by Idle No More, #nofnea, Theresa Spence and many other “grass roots” actually toppled that former leadership and left a rift between First Nations and Canada which was quite an interesting and amusing thing to see. The Feds were awfully vindictive and Trudeau was able to make all sorts of promises that the new leadership chose to believe.
And continue to believe despite the fact he has gone against many of his promises: he approved Site C; he approved the TransMountain pipeline; he continues to ignore the court orders to implement Jordan’s Principle and properly fund and protect Indigenous children; fought against equality for Native women in Bill S-3; failed to follow through on his promise to increase funding to First Nations’ schools… it goes on and on.
Today, AFN Chief Perry Bellegarde signed a memorandum of Understanding with Trudeau to start making progress on First Nations issues, regardless of the fact that he does not have the authority to do so, NOT BEING A REPRESENTATIVE AUTHORITY for First Nations people and the fact that this is just another photo-op for the Prime Minister. AFN fell into the trap it always falls into: it was flattered, told it was the voice of the oppressed, by the oppressor and jumped at the chance. They forget that this has always been the way it works. The Federal government handpicks the people it will work with from the First Nations, makes them the leaders and then controls them. If not, they seduce the new leadership with promises of power or change and eventually bring them over. The people wake up, push back, remove these “Indian Act leaders,” there is a cold spell, repeat. So we are in the situation we were in with Atleo, only now with Bellegarde, one of the loudest AFN critics of Atleo’s relationship with Harper.
The AFN isn’t a representative body and shouldn’t be treated as such by the Federal Government. It isn’t treated as such by the rest of us not in it. Just because we may or may not have elected a Chief of our First Nation does not mean that we have endorsed an AFN body. In fact, I suspect that many would prefer someone other than the Chief as a representative to a larger body. I do not know if it is time to start having that conversation about whether we need a representative body to work with Canada, but I know that the AFN is not it, whatever Canada and the AFN try to tell you.