By Lloyd Dolha
The success of the upcoming historic meeting between the prime minister, provincial premiers and the leading national aboriginal organizations may be in jeopardy due to significant internal divisions in the Assembly of First Nations.
Chiefs representing the 11 numbered treaties, which covers a massive area of Canada from northern Ontario through the Prairies, the territories and part of northern British Columbia, have voted to join forces through the creation of a new political entity called the Treaty Chiefs Council Secretariat. The creation of the new entity has ignited speculation that it could eventually break away from the AFN.
Chief Strater Crowfoot of the First Nation in Alberta, which is part of Treaty 7, said that while he does not support pulling out of the AFN, he believes some in the new secretariat are in favour of such a move.
“Probably, yes [because] they’re being ignored, the treaties that they have are being diluted,” said Chief Crowfoot.
At a rare meeting of all chiefs from Treaty 1 to 11 on September 27 to 29th in Edmonton, the treaty chiefs voted 54-0 to create the Treaty Chiefs Council Secretariat, with four chiefs abstaining.
There is speculation that former AFN national chief Ovide Mercredi, may head up the new organization. Mercredi was elected chief of the Grand Rapids First Nation of Manitoba in June.
A separate resolution by Treat6 6 to 8 chiefs in Alberta criticized the federal government’s “pan-aboriginal” approach to “homogenize First Nations people.” The resolution also says the treaty chiefs from Alberta are demanding a “nation to nation” relationship for discussions on education at the November first ministers meeting.
The chiefs from Quebec are currently debating a motion to pull out of the national body for the purposes of the first ministers meeting. A resolution that has been debated at two meetings of the 40 Quebec chiefs declares that they would not be bound by any deal struck by the AFN at the meeting and the prime minister and the premiers should deal with the Quebec chiefs separately.
Ghislain Picard, the regional chief of Quebec and Labrador, made it clear that he will not meet with Prime Minister Paul Martin and the premiers.
Picard said Canada should be dealing First Nations governments as equals and the provinces should join talks after that.
“I mean it’s up to us to determine when Quebec comes into play and that’s certainly what we want to do,” said the regional chief. “We don’t want to be victims of the multilateral process that is strictly designed by the federal government.”
Although the status of the Quebec chief’s motion remains unclear, the organization drafted a damning report criticizing the AFN’s handling of negotiations with Ottawa heading into the first minister’s meeting in Kelowna, B.C.
The report states the Quebec chiefs have “serious misgivings” about the current process heading into the meeting which “can only turn out to be dangerous for the AFN and the future of First Nations.”
The report further expresses concern that the meeting is being held to close to a federal election.
“The current political circumstances … give rise to slapdash solutions stemming from a slapdash process, into which the First Nations can only feel rushed,” it states.
On the prairies, some chiefs with historic treaties with the Crown say they deserve a seat beside the AFN, not behind it.
Chief BillyJo DeLaRonde of the Pine Creek First Nation in Manitoba sad he appreciates what the AFN is doing, but believes the emphasis should be on treaty rights and therefore he has concerns about the meeting.
Provinces to be given more control
Both the numbered treaty chiefs and the Quebec chiefs have expressed concern that the AFN, led by national chief Phil Fontaine, is about to sign a deal that would see Ottawa offloading many of its responsibilities for aboriginals to the provinces.
These internal divisions could make it more difficult to strike a deal at the meeting which is the culmination of nearly two years of talks aimed at raising the standard of living of all aboriginal people to the Canadian average in ten years.
The federal government is set to announce a major cash injection to lift aboriginal living standards that it has called “shameful.”
Ottawa will commit between $3 and $5 billion over five years to improve aboriginal education, housing, health and economic development programs.
The Assembly of First Nations has urged Ottawa to commit at least $5 billion over the next ten years to fight poverty on reserves.
But Federation of Saskatchewan Indians Nations chief Alphonse Bird said these leaders don’t speak for everyone.
“My people came down from Montreal Lake, Treaty 6 and we’re participating,” said Bird. “Our people have never given us a mandate to stay away and say no to opportunity.”
Fontaine said that no matter who participates in the Kelowna meeting, his job is still to fight for the rights of all First Nations people in Canada.
He assured the treaty chiefs that their rights will be a central part of the AFN’s position. The national chief said he expects strong support from the “vast majority” of chiefs heading into the late November meeting and that internal debate should be expected.
The national chief was in Edmonton to meet the interim spokesperson of the new fledgling organization, Chief Sanford Big Plume.
“You have a minority government, but that doesn’t make the prime minister any less ligitimate when he convenes a first ministers meeting. He speaks for Canada … well, I have a mandate to speak for the First Nations of Canada.”