AFN Leader Seeks to Reorganize National Body

By Lloyd Dolha

Recently re-elected National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, Phil Fontaine is beginning a complete review of the national lobby group’s decision-making process through a National Chief’s Commission on Organizational reform.

“It [the AFN] evolved into a chief’s organization and it may be time to re-invent the assembly,” said Fontaine in a recent interview.

A National Chief’s Commission will review the way the national chief is elected. Currently only elected chiefs can elect the national leader.

The AFN’s governance structure has been harshly criticized by Indian Affairs Minister Robert Nault as an elitist body representing only self-interested chiefs. Nault cut the AFN’s funding during the 2000-2003 term of the confrontational Matthew Coon Come from $19 million to approximately $6 million.

Coon Come attempted a similar review in 2001, but his efforts were quickly stifled by the governing chiefs. He tried to revive the issue earlier this year in a 46 page discussion paper on restructuring, but was defeated by Fontaine in the July AFN election.

Fontaine, back at the helm of the AFN after his defeat by Coon Come in 2000, said the chiefs now favour change in the organizational structure of the national body.

Fontaine said he’d like to see the AFN promote a more positive image of Canada’s First Nations so taxpayers will see more First Nations success stories.

“They have to know that the money that’s going towards First Nations’ services and programs is not going into a sinkhole, but that there is a significant return on investment,” said the national chief.

Fontaine added that social conditions for First Nations can be improved if a way can be found to train the growing number of aboriginal youth to match the emerging labour shortages in the Canadian economy as baby-boomers retire in the near future.

Native youth hold future
It’s a daunting challenge. The 2001 Aboriginal Peoples Survey released by Statistics Canada on Wednesday September 24th, found that 48 per cent of young aboriginals aged 20 to 24 were high school dropouts as compared to about one-third of non-aboriginals. One quarter of native girls aged 15 to 19 said they left school because of pregnancy or child-care issues, while 24 per cent of boys in the same age group cited boredom.

Survey questions were answered by117,000 Indian, Inuit and Metis people, including 86,000 living off reserve.

Witness the aboriginal youth gang phenomenon exploding across the prairie provinces. The aboriginal youth population is set to quadruple in the next decade and with that comes a greater need to educate and train native-teens – almost 70 per cent of whom drop out of school for private sector jobs.

If the problem is left un-addressed, the social and financial implications will punish Canadian taxpayers said John Kim Bell, president of the Aboriginal Achievement Foundation (AAF).

By 2016, nearly 400,000 aboriginal youth will be eligible to enter the work force said Bell.

“If we don’t change the drop out rate, the cost of health is going to go up, the cost of welfare is going to go up – because if these 350,000 kids are unemployable, what are they going to do?”

Many of the Canada’s 92,000 aboriginal youth aboriginal youth aged 15 to 19 can only find low paying part-time or seasonal work said Bell.

Bell, the founder of the Achievement Foundation, that tirelessly encourages aboriginal youth to pursue higher paying employment in manufacturing, transportation and information technology industries through career fairs held four times per year across the nation.

On Tuesday, September 23rd, some 300 corporate executives, academics aboriginal leaders and youth gathered in Toronto in an effort to introduce aboriginal students to new career paths.

Fontaine sets up office
In the meantime, AFN leader Phil Fontaine has recently come under fire for a proposed $900,000 budget to set up his national office.

That includes plans to spend an additional $300,000 to upgrade AFN headquarters that were upgraded four years ago during Fontaine’s first term as national chief for a total of $1.2 million in the proposed budget.

Fontaine was not available for comment, but Manny Jules, his new chief of staff defended the request currently under review by Indian and Northern Affairs Canada.

“There’s always a difference between what you request and what you get,” said Jules in an interview.

At least $250,000 of the proposed amount will be used to compensate four non-political staff who were fired after Fontaine’s
return to the national office.

Fontaine wants to double his staff to 18 from the number who served under Coon Come.

As for the renovations, Jules said that work was being done during Fontaine’s first term, that included oak wood flooring and cherrywood wall panels for the national chief’s office and more upgrades are expected.

“One of the things we want to make sure of is that people, when they come into the Assembly of First Nations, know they’re coming into a national institute that represents First Nations across the country,” said the new chief of staff.

Roberta Jamieson, leader of the Six Nations of Grand River in Southwestern Ontario was also a candidate for the AFN leadership in the July election.

Jamieson expressed surprise at the news of the proposed office budget.

“It’s a very big price tag. We all know what the needs are in the communities,” said Jamieson.”He’ll have to account to the chiefs.”