By Lloyd Dolha
In a press conference on Parliament Hill, Chief John Beaucage announced his candidacy for the leadership of the Assembly of First Nations on February 3rd. “Today, we’re here to take the first step in the rebirth of the Assembly of First Nations—a new AFN,” said the Grand Council Chief of the Anishinabek Nation. “I have a vision for a new AFN where the rights-based agenda is paramount and First Nations assert a renewed jurisdiction towards self-determination, self-government, and nationhood.” Beaucage said he was approached by an overwhelming number of chiefs and First Nations citizens to seek the top job, and his vision for a grass-roots movement was “spurred on by the youth and their call for unity, pride and inspiration.”
“The youth have spoken about the need for action, about their need for inclusion, [and] to ascend from despair, disregard, and indifference to take their rightful place as holders of their own destiny,” said Beaucage. He believes that among the youth, there is an expectation for change, and he said, “With all that my spirit can muster, I accept that call in being their agent for change.”
Beaucage noted that the AFN progenitor, the National Indian Brotherhood, developed as an organization primarily responsible for political advocacy and the current AFN has continued that role. The AFN has advocated against legislation First Nations don’t agree with and has worked to uphold people’s rights to education, housing, and health care. AFN also represents the interests of First Nations in constitutional talks.
Beaucage said the AFN must now move beyond the role of a special interest advocacy group and recognize the historic confederacy of First Nations. “Now, we are moving into another era where visionary leadership will be a catalyst for change and First Nations can take our place as a legitimate order of government in the fabric of Canadian society,” he said.
Beaucage is one of four candidates in this election. Perry Bellegarde, the former leader of the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations (FSIN) has also thrown his hat in the ring for leadership of the AFN. Currently a Regina-based business consultant, Bellegarde (age 46) was grand chief of the FSIN from 1998 to 2003. Prior to entering the private sector, he was also a vice-president of Saskatchewan’s Crown Investments Corporation. In a press release announcing his candidacy for the AFN position, Bellegarde said he plans to focus on economic development and employment among his priorities as National Chief. “This is our moment in time,” he said. “It is my intention as National Chief to ensure that First Nations people become the beneficiaries of the changes that promote self-determination, self-sufficiency, and the honouring of our sacred traditions.”
The incumbent National Chief, Phil Fontaine, plans to seek an unprecedented fourth term as national leader. Fontaine (age 63) was first elected National Chief in 1997, following a long career in local First Nations politics at the provincial level. He was defeated in 2000 by Matthew Coon Come for being overtly close with the then Liberal government. Fontaine came back to win re-election in 2003 and 2006.
The final contender for National Chief is B.C. AFN Regional Chief Shawn A‑in‑chut Atleo, who has shunned early media attention. Shawn is a hereditary chief of the Ahousaht Nation, a position that requires both responsibility and accountability in his work and with his people. Shawn was re-elected in November 2006 for his 2nd consecutive term as the BC Regional Chief of the AFN. On his 2009 campaign website (www.shawnatleo.com) he states his position in straightforward terms: “By standing up proud and standing up together for our traditions, our laws, and our territories, we can ensure healthy families and communities, achieve sustainable economies, and return to living in balance and harmony with our environment. It is our time to act.”
Of the potential candidates, Beaucage is the only one who has pushed the AFN for change beyond the present structure (voting rights for only the 633 elected chiefs) and encouraged a complete reorganization of the AFN to a “nationhood model.” Such a model would extend voting rights to every aboriginal across the nation regardless of where they live.
An economist by training, Beaucage laid out a ten-point plan for the fundamental restructuring of the national body. Some of the key points include: a renewed commitment to a rights-based agenda and treaty rights; greater transparency, engagement and renewal; overhauling health services through the integration of federal, provincial, and local health programs. His vision of a new AFN calls for moving First Nations governance toward formal acceptance within the Canadian constitution in the Canadian federation. The process would take the form of constitutional amendment to recognize First Nations right to self-government, as well as a constitutionally recognized right to have representation in the House of Commons and in the Senate. Elected representatives would not belong to any established party, but would advocate, vote, and participate in debates to ensure that First Nations interests and treaty rights are being protected.
Grand Council Chief Beaucage is the leader of the 42-member First Nations of the Anishinabek Nation, representing one of the largest First Nation’s constituencies in Canada. He was first elected as Grand Council Chief in 2004, then re-elected in 2006 by acclamation. Beaucage played an instrumental role in the 2005 First Minister’s Meeting that led to the Kelowna Accords. He also served as co-chair for the First Minister’s Working Groups for Housing and Relationships. On the national scene, Beaucage co-chairs the National Portfolio for Housing for the AFN’s Chief’s Committee on Housing. In May of 2008, he was appointed chairperson of the $300 million First Nations Market Housing Fund. As leader of the Anishinabek Nation, Beaucage advocated a “solution-based approach to a rights-based agenda” by implementing grass-roots approaches to restore First Nations law-making authority.
The election of the AFN National Chief will be held in Calgary, Alberta on July 22, 2009. “No matter who is elected as the next National Chief, there is no question – change is coming,” said Beaucage. “That change will be toward nationhood and recognition of First Nations as legitimate orders of government within Canada.”