A gentleman going by the name of Dirk Buchholz left a very good comment under our post "Shawn Atleo new National Chief." He asks: "Can any real progress really be expected when AFN is funded and wholly accountable to the settler government rather than to indigenous peoples, the very peoples it claims to represent?" and more. These are smart questions worthy of more attention than he would get if this was left under comments, and some intelligent debate. So I have reprinted his comment below as a post. (For Bad-Anon who likes to troll here, plz note I said "intelligent".) Dirk's comment reprinted below. I have weighed in, my thoughts and opinions follow.
Dirk Buchholz said:
I was wondering if you could explain to me what the actual role of AFN is and how it can claim to represent indigenous peoples. Does not the very existence of AFN lend a kind of legitimacy to the Indian Act? Can any real progress really be expected when AFN is funded and wholly accountable to the settler government rather than to indigenous peoples, the very peoples it claims to represent? Is not government funding of F.N org's just another tool of assimilation, i.e the acceptance of gov funding tends to subvert, de-radicalize grassroots activism ?
I am a bit of a history buff, so I think the issue of government funding for national First Nations organizations needs to be looked at first.
It was a real struggle to organize a national organization during the early part of the 1900s. This was the period where oppression of First Nations people really began. The new Canadian government as well as First Nations had looked to what was happened south of the border and neither wanted to pursue wars to deal with the land issue. On the part of the Canadian government, they could see that the US had spent more money fighting Indian wars in 6 months that they had in their entire coiffeurs. First Nations saw the weapons that were being brought in and had lost their advantage in numbers, first due to death by disease, then after the early 1900s to waves of immigration under the effective recruitment campaigns of Minister Clifford Sifton after 1902. First Nations never felt they got enough in the treaties (certainly the land bases in the US are much more generous) and Canada felt they had given too much - housing, the medicine chest, and other items that are still debated today. It's important to note that not all First Nations signed treaties which led to early land claims in Ontario Quebec and BC. These would be put on temporarily on hold for 40 years or so due to oppressive new clauses of the Indian Act.
Between 1900 and 1950 some of the most oppressive measures were passed under the Indian Act. These included: making it illegal for Indians in the west to leave the reserve without a pass issued by their Indian agent; making it illegal for Indians to gather for political purposes, it was illegal for lawyers to represent First Nations on land claims, Indian farmers could not sell their goods with out express permission from an Indian agent (this was passed to stop Indian competing with white farmers who were being recruited to settle the west, and resulted in ruining several good reserve economies) ; residential schools, bans on traditional dances and spiritual practices, and a host of others. Apart from the political obstacles, there were language barriers, a lack of communications infrastructure like telephones, and Indian Affairs refused to provide mailing addresses from one community to another.
In the same period you had a number of First Nations going off to fight in WW1 and WW2. Many came back saying they had been treated as equals while in the war and found it unacceptable that they returned to be treated as wards of the state. Many of these veterans led early movements to forge a national movement. They had support from other veterans and some Christian faith groups (which is very interesting considering what was happening in residential schools in the same period). First Nations leaders broke the law and attended political gatherings. The RCMP arrested a number. Some polic it should be noted were very reluctant to do so, as many felt this was an oppression of human rights, law or not.
Frederick Oliver Loft of Six Nations a WW1 veteran was key in uniting Ontario and Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta. Regional leaders like John Tootoosis appeared. Loft was able to garner much public sympathy and was a constant thorn in the government's side. Loft was forced to absent himself from the political movement for a number of years when his wife fell ill. When he returned, the recession had hit and he could not raise monies to take Canada to court over land claims, which was his goal. The Canadian government intercepted letters outlining his plans to do so. As this was illegal they threatened him with prison. Loft was in his 70s by this time and backed down.
Jules Sioui, a Huron appeared as the next leader. He was radical, outspoken and considered by many in at Indian Affairs to be politically dangerous. In the early 1940s he organized a political meeting in Ottawa. At the same time Fred Kelly and Andy Paull had united BC, while some infrastructure on the prairies remained from Loft's earlier movement. A number of these leaders met in Ottawa. Apparently it was quite the scene with multiple translators posted around the room. Up until this point all movements had been funding by First Nations people in communities.
Andy Paull eventually took over the national movement. The government decided to meet with them and address some grievances which resulted in the relaxation of some of the harsher rules under the Indian Act in 1951.
After this the federal government organized a series of yearly consultations with representatives from each region. It was here that Andy Paul first suggested that the leaders receive pay form the government for their work. The government refused saying that if leaders were paid by government they would probably no longer be trusted by their people. The government did pick up the tab for travel for the meetings.
As First Nations leaders were getting together regularly but not making much progress on promoting changes after 1951, they took advantage of the meetings to discuss forming a new political organization. The first was the Native Council of Canada. This dissipated because it was essentially a body of leaders meeting with no popular support. Despite some good efforts, communications infrastructure was not good and the majority of grassroots folks and local leaders had no idea they existed. There was also some squabbling between on-reserve and off reserve. In 1968, the federal government offered some small core funding for a First Nations organization, but said they would only fund Status Indians as they were not constitutionally responsible for non-status and Métis. This led to a split that formed the National Indian Brotherhood (Later the AFN) for status Indians, the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples (CAP), and later, in the 1980s when the constitution was being patriated a split between CAP and a newly formed Métis National Council (MNC). Today all of these groups are funded by the government. It's worth noting that what prevented the NIB/AFN from becoming another head without a body was the 1969 white paper. The White paper backfired so badly on government that a rush of government, academic and other researchers moved in to study First Nations, and the government upped funding to these groups. It improved communications and allowed a stable political infrastructure to grow for the first time.
The questions, and some initial thoughts/opinions
Q: I was wondering if you could explain to me what the actual role of AFN is and how it can claim to represent indigenous peoples.
Opinion: AFN represents only First Nations - not Métis or Inuit. It is supposed to represent all First Nations but is very weak on representing off-reserve, non-status and some would argue women although they have improved on this last point over the last ten years. The National Chief and the AFN office get constant input from chiefs through assemblies, chiefs committees on various topics. When it works well, the chiefs raise an issue through a resolution. The AFN then does all the research and legal work on the issue to try and find a solution. This is developed into a business case and reported back to chiefs. If there is agreement the AFN moves forward working with government on the option supported by chiefs through presenting the business case to government.
However multiple things can go wrong in this process. Chiefs may not agree - take for example the Kelowna accord. Chiefs in Quebec did not support it. Or the federal government may not share the same priorities or may just be - as the current government is - difficult to deal with.
Q: Can any real progress really be expected when AFN is funded and wholly accountable to the settler government rather than to indigenous peoples, the very peoples it claims to represent?
Opinion: Well the AFN is definitely accountable to chiefs. They hear about it when they are perceived as being too close to government, it causes splits and chief threaten to pull out from the AFN. The Mohawks did so during the Kelowna debates and I am not sure if they have participated since, although they were sending observers to meetings for a while.
Certainly some progress was made on residential schools. This seems to have been made by not only presenting a solid business case showing that it was cheaper to solve the problem rather than to let it fester in the courts (especially when the government looked like it would lose and wind up paying more anyway in addition to legal fees.) This appears to have been done by uniting with numerous other lobby groups to force the government's hand.
However, it must always be on the minds of leaders that funding can get cut at anytime. I think this is why you have such a PR war over accountability, lately. IF the feds can paint the AFN as a backwards old boys club standing in the way of progress while sucking funds off the public into a black hole, then they will have support for cutting it off. I do believe the AFN is in more than 1 million dollars debt this year - that was reported on their books at the AGA. Why they are in such debt was not explained as the meeting was cut short. Whether it was because - as former National Chief Phil Fontaine hinted in his goodbye speech - that the feds are cutting funds to impede the work the AFN is doing, or whether it is because they have been irresponsible with money, is uncertain. However if it was entirely the latter I expect we'd see the feds denouncing hate AFN publicly. A closer look at the books is needed. They should be up on the AFN website somewhere and I'll post a link if I can find it.
So would the AFN be better off funded by FN? I think so. There seems to be money to do so. The large sum of moula donated by AMC to the Canadian Human Rights Museum may have been better spent shoring up a more independent AFN, in my opinion.
Q: Is not government funding of F.N org's just another tool of assimilation, i.e the acceptance of gov funding tends to subvert, de-radicalize grassroots activism ?
Opinion: Yes. I think so. I think it is definitely an attempt to co-op. I think the worst example of what can happen was displayed by the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples (CAP) over the last few years where their leader just aped everything the conservatives said. It got some dollars for the organization – for example their Powley and governance research, but ultimately their leader benefited the most by securing a Senate appointment. While something this dissapointing has not yet happened at the AFN, it could, although I imagine chiefs would just pull out and stop supporting the AFN if it did. It is more likley that government would just cut funding as it did in 2002 when the AFN refused to support the First Nations Government Act, the First Nations Statistical Management Act, and an early version of the Specific Claims Act.
I really hope that Wideye weighs in because she knows a lot more about the AFN than I do, having followed Indian politics longer. I would love to hear what she thinks. I think it’s fair to say we often disagree but I always respect her opinions, they are very insightful. I also know we got more than 2000 hits a day while elections were going on. I hope some of those folks will weigh in as well. Certainly this has been a hot topic of debate in Indian country for years.