Sunday, July 26, 2009

Post responding to Dirk Buchholz's most excellent observations

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.



OutLoudVoice said...

Good overview and analysis. Please apply your talent to predict what AFN will look like in 10 years? Vote, membership, and role in Canada - I'm interested in your thoughts.

Wideye said...

Ok have some time again – at least I’ve done 3 hours of work-work and deserve a break.

Ward is way wrong in her belief that I might know more about AFN. But I have my thoughts like others and don’t mind sharing them (otherwise why blog?). And - A LOT of people don’t always agree with me. ..and that’s probably a good thing.’s my shot:

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.

My thought: I don’t know where the AFN ever claimed to represent indigenous people, only those citizens of the First Nations in Canada. And I think (and others agree) the AFN actually only represent the Chiefs of those nations.

The AFN is divided into two bodies or functions. The Assembly of First Nations is actually the political body or the executive and is governed by the AFN Charter found at the AFN web site .The National Indian Brotherhood forms the secretariat or the “working-body” for the political entity. (I call these people the worker-bee’s)

The AFN is a political body that advocates issues that impact on First Nations and promotes awareness to the general public about conditions in our communities. The AFN does not deliver programs but informs government on policy so there is a better chance that programs will be designed to fit the people they are intended for.

As Ward already stated this has its limitations as it is rare that all Chiefs will support every resolution passed. Like everywhere else in the world there are competing needs and priorities with regional differences. The National Chief must balance all those pressing needs and define priorities to tackle. Not everyone will be happy and some Nations may be so opposed that they withdraw from the AFN altogether. And too – for all the ‘expert’ advice provided government bureaucrats’ horrible programs are designed and forced on communities but to be fare some amazing programs and initiatives can and are in place because sometimes government people do listen.

I like to believe the AFN exists to ensure the people most vulnerable in our society are not forgotten and to remind everyone that positive change through cooperative efforts does happen.

Wideye said...

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?

My thought: Well that probably depends on how you define progress and what you mean by “real” but I’d say since the AFN’s inception improvements have been made in many areas are both real and substantial. It’s far from perfect but relations with Canada have been built because of the AFN and its leadership.

There is always room for conflicting values when funded by your oppressor if you will. Take the AFN and their position on Child Welfare inequities. The AFN filed a human rights complaint demanding that First Nation children treated equitably with children who do not live on a reserve. Sounds fair right? So what did the government of Canada do... Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) cut or has made it extremely for the AFN to receive funds to do any more advocacy work in this area. So yeah it’s difficult but progress can happen.

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 ?

My thought:’s those big words – subvert, de-radicalize activism.....I’m going to come out on the no side.
A tool can be picked up and used for many purposes and can be used incorrectly. There is no doubt that government would like to assimilate us under some misguided and dangerous belief that everything will be ‘fixed’ but there are too many people First Nation, Métis, Inuit and non-Aboriginal who know better.

I like radicalized activism and stuff like that...that is the energy we require to move forward.
Well....hope this provides another perspective or additional thoughts.

Thanks for asking!

Wideye said...

Hi OutLoudVoice (like your moniker)

Well... I used to work there 10 years ago and not much has changed.....So let’s see what I can predict. I predict a new National Chief (although Atleo is young) and maybe a new CEO and a couple of new Directors. Hmmmm....maybe some new funding mechanisms from government will be implemented by then and OH! I know...maybe an updated Charter concerning how the elections are run...but will there be a one vote per person? I hope not.

Dirk Buchholz said...

Wow...thanks for the time and effort you put into addressing my questions.
I don't have the time,right now, to respond in kind to some of the points made. But I definitly hope to soon,either as a comment(here) or perhaps as a blog post on my own blog.

oceanwalker said...

I'm commenting from my experience of growing up on the fringes of 2 bands in BC. My two cents, from a slightly different angle.

What many people don't realise is the Chief system as it stands is an act of assimilation. Some bands will almost always prefer to elect the hereditary Chief -- when this doesn't happen, there is a lot of interplay and conflict between the two Chiefs, one elected and one hereditary.

The elected Chief has control of the money and interacts with the government. The hereditary Chief has prestige and ceremonial authority. Instant problem.

I'm not arguing the bands should chuck all elections, but at some point we need to recognize that this conflict exists and needs to be reconciled. I know in my area it has caused a lot of the "dysfunction" seen on the outside.

The bands need the freedom to shape democracy for their needs, not for the government. From what I've read and observed, it is fairly alien to the traditional consensus method anyway. Let's face it, following 20th century ideas of democracy and government hasn't produced many healthy bands.* In BC, the scars of the residential schools, the authoritarion social workers, et al, are only beginning to heal. The saying is that it takes a family seven generations to heal -- what will it take for a band?

I think in ten or twenty years the AFN (or more likely its replacement) will look vastly different, both in structure, and in the way its members are selected.

*I'm using healthy as meaning a functional, self-supporting band within the lower median range of Canadian stats on suicide, drug use, alcoholism, and infant mortality.

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