The Harper Government and Assembly of First Nations Politics

This meeting came about through meetings and letters between Prime Minister Stephen Harper and National Chief Shawn Atleo last year. In addition to these communications there was a Canada-First Nations Joint Action Plan agreed to between the Aboriginal Affairs Ministry and the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) in June 2011, which indicated a CFNG would likely be held.

I observed the CFNG from the media room in the building where the high profile event was held. When the plenary meeting recessed I observed many First Nations Chiefs and leaders rushing to greet the Prime Minister. Reportedly, during the lunch break there was a line up to get a photo with the Prime Minister.

The afternoon sessions were in-camera and off limits to the media, although several Chiefs communicated to me that there were First Nation Chiefs and leaders in those sessions who spoke in support of the Harper government. One notable example was the Tsawwassen Chief Kim Baird, who was there to advocate in support of the federal Comprehensive Claims Policy. Chief Baird led her community into a “Modern Treaty” under the federal claims policy. Chief Baird’s position contradicts the AFN position that the federal Comprehensive Claims Policy needs to be reformed.

Prior to the gathering, I indicated there were at least three major aspects that shape the Crown-First Nations relationship and would mitigate against any real outcomes from the Crown-First Nations Gathering, namely:

1) Crown policies deny First Nations rights;

2) Crown governments use money for programs, services and negotiations to essentially bribe and blackmail First Nations to stay in line; and

3) Crown governments use many (but not all) First Nations Chiefs, leaders, collaborators and organizations to keep the growing discontent among First Nations citizens from becoming a larger social, political movement across regions and Canada.

This last aspect, the use of our own leaders against us is called “neo-colonialism”. Here is one definition of the term “neo-colonialism” from the American Heritage Dictionary: “A policy whereby a major power uses economic and political means to perpetuate or extend its influence over underdeveloped nations or areas.”

These aspects were at play as part of the negotiating environment going into the CFNG, which is why the Prime Minister’s Office was able to dictate the logistics and outcomes of the meeting.

So First Nations, or others, should not be surprised at the minimal outcomes of the CFNG as they were laid out in the Outcome Statement issued by the Prime Minister’s office. The five Federal commitments are in keeping with the “incremental” approach that the Harper government favours. An indication of how serious Prime Minister Harper is about these CFNG commitments will be if he assigns senior representatives with mandates from the Prime Minister’s Office, the Privy Council Office, Justice and Treasury Board to follow-up with AFN on these commitments. These are the central agencies involved in serious federal policy and budgetary proposals for Cabinet consideration.

If the Harper government only assigns officials from the Department of Aboriginal Affairs and other line departments to follow-up on these “outcomes,” this will be a strong indication that Prime Minister Harper is not serious about the “outcomes” and has merely set up federal-AFN processes to appear as if the First Nations issues and concerns are being addressed when it is really about the “optics” — the appearance of doing something following the “Gathering.”

Federal Budget 2012-13

Another indicator of whether Prime Minister Harper is serious about the CFNG “outcomes” is in the recent federal budget. Analysts have noted that Aboriginal Affairs was hit with only a 2.7 percent cut, one of the smallest cuts imposed on a Federal agency. But there is already a 2 percent cap on Aboriginal Affairs, which has been in place since 1995 when then Finance Minister Paul Martin imposed the funding cap. Moreover, what the Federal government appears to give with one hand, it takes away with the other, as we’ve just seen with the announcement that the National Aboriginal Health Organisation, the Native Women’s Association of Canada’s Health Department, and the First Nations Statistical Institute are being forced to shut down.

In my view the current budget cuts affecting First Nations are largely due to the systemic federal fiscal subjugation of the First Nations management class, which includes bands, tribal councils, regional and national organizations.

The Harper government is apparently confident enough of its majority government control over First Nations that the federal budget also included two key policy announcements that will threaten First Nations lands, territories and resources.

The first budget policy initiative supports the privatization of on-reserve residential lands, which Tom Flanagan and Manny Jules have been campaigning on for the Harper government over the last few years. This was one of Harper’s 2006 campaign promises and is one of his methods to “incrementally” get rid of Indian Reserves.

The second budget policy initiative to streamline the federal environmental assessment process is a method to undermine and/or eliminate the Aboriginal and Treaty rights of First Nations while Canadian economic recovery occurs through energy, mining, hydro and forestry development on First Nations’ Aboriginal Title and/or Treaty territories. The “streamlined” environmental review process will be used in conjunction with the federal policy assessment/negotiation framework contained in the federal self-government, land claims and consultation policies to minimize, deny and delay any recognition of Aboriginal and Treaty rights on the ground.

This federal denial of Aboriginal and Treaty rights paves the way for the use of force against unwilling First Nations to impose Harper’s self-declared “matters of national interest.” An example is the high level of security around the National Energy Board hearings of the Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline in British Columbia.

Imagine what the security will be like if the federal Cabinet approves the pipeline after the hearings, over the objections of First Nations?

By the way, for those of you thinking the Liberals are better than the Conservatives, the current self-government and land claims negotiation policies the Harper government is using to deny, delay and ultimately extinguish Aboriginal and Treaty rights were developed under previous federal Liberal governments.

2012 Assembly of First Nations Election

The Assembly of First Nations is a national organization of First Nations’ Chiefs and was formed through a 1982 reorganization of the National Indian Brotherhood (NIB). The NIB was formed in 1969 to organize Chiefs across Canada to fight the Liberal’s 1969 White Paper on Indians, which proposed the termination of Indian rights and the assimilation of “Indians” into the mainstream of Canadian society”. In 1985, the AFN adopted a Charter that sets out the principles, role and organization of AFN. Its main role is to advocate for First Nations rights and interests with Crown governments and others.

The AFN is holding an election for the position of National Chief in Toronto on July 17-19, 2012, at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre. Only Chiefs or their proxies can vote in the AFN election. The position of AFN National Chief is s delegated role, the mandates of the National Chief and the AFN national office in Ottawa come from resolutions from the Chiefs-in-Assembly, which meets twice annually unless emergency Assemblies are called.

Now that the Crown-First Nations Gathering is over, the sniping at incumbent National Chief Atleo by regional First Nation Chiefs, leaders and commentators has begun in earnest.

From what I have heard from Chiefs and other sources among First Nations, some of the potential challengers to National Chief Atleo are the former National Chief Phil Fontaine, President of the Dene Nation and Northern Assembly of First Nations (AFN) Vice-Chief Bill Erasmus, Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations Chief Blaine Favel, and former Rosseau River (Manitoba) Chief Terry Nelson.

It will be Chiefs and proxies voting for National Chief, not First Nation citizens, but as First Nation citizens we are entitled to our opinions. Here are a few thoughts on the candidates so far:

Phil Fontaine is working closely with the private sector now.

Bill Erasmus has indicated in the media he is considering his candidacy for AFN National Chief. Billy’s brother, former National Chief Georges Erasmus, had close ties with the federal Conservative government of Brian Mulroney in the 1980’s, including during the so called “Oka crisis” of 1990. After that cooperative relationship Prime Minister Mulroney appointed Georges Erasmus Co-Chair of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples in 1991.

Blaine Favel has been working with the oil and gas sector in Calgary for the past number of years. Former National Chief Ovide Mercredi publicly referred to Blaine as a “collaborator” in 1997, when Blaine Favel was working closely with the then federal Minister of Indian Affairs, Ron Irwin, on federal policy initiatives.

Most recent is the reported announcement of former Rosseau River Chief Terry Nelson at a Mosque in Toronto that he is running for AFN National Chief. Terry Nelson is most recently known as the coordinator of a lobby effort to meet the Iranian President to discuss support for First Nations in Canada.

Whoever gets in will have to deal with the Harper government for three more years. Prime Minister Harper has a carrot and stick to use on AFN and the Chiefs. Most likely it will be carrots, if any of the candidates rumoured to be running actually win.

Despite some concerns I may have about the incumbent AFN National Chief, at least I can say National Chief Shawn Atleo hasn’t been a lapdog like his predecessor was with the previous federal Liberal governments of Jean Chretien and Paul Martin.

Russell Diabo is a member of the Mohawk Nation at Kahnawake. He is Editor and Publisher of the First Nations Strategic Bulletin, a web-based newsletter available from the Canada Library & Archives website in Electronic Collections. For more information, contact rdiabo [at ]

An earlier version of this article was published in the First Nations Strategic Bulletin 10, 1-3 (January-March 2012), the publication of the First Nations Strategic Policy Counsel.