Assembly of First Nations

The Assembly of First Nations (AFN) is a political organization representing FIRST NATIONS, those identified as bands under the INDIAN ACT and whose members have historically been referred to as INDIAN (see ABORIGINAL PEOPLE). The AFN's assemblies, held at least once a year, include seats for a chief from each First Nation. There are over 600 First Nations in Canada.

The AFN is led by a national chief, who is elected for a three-year term. The chief is assisted by an Executive Committee of ten regionally elected vice-chiefs. The First Nations-in-Assembly meets annually to determine policy and direction, while a Confederacy of Nations—made up of representatives from each region—meets at least twice a year to review assembly resolutions and to address any issues which arise between annual meetings. A Council of Elders develops rules and procedures for the assembly. The Secretariat (also known as the National Indian Brotherhood) is comprised of the Executive and all administrative, technical, and support staff. The AFN also includes a Council of Women and a National Youth Council.

AFN officials lobby MPs, cabinet ministers, and senior government officials to make sure its positions are considered in the formulation of government policy. Secretariats in such areas as education, health, information services, social services, and economic development carry on consultations, develop policy, and assist individual First Nations. The AFN receives government funding for the work of these secretariats in the form of contribution agreements for specific tasks. Stable funding has been as great a challenge for the AFN as constitutional recognition of First Nations self-government.

Ongoing Advocacy and Challenges

The AFN faces challenges from within the First Nations community as well. An ongoing problem is the perceived nature of the relationship between the AFN and the Canadian government, which some critics allege is too “cosy”. The disunity among First Nations was manifested in the response of Aboriginal individuals and organizations to the government’s Bill C-45 (the “budget omnibus bill”) introduced in October 2012. At over 400 pages of text, the bill made significant changes to many acts, including the Indian Act, the Navigable Waters Protection Act (changed to the Navigation Protection Act), and the Environmental Assessment Act. The changes concerned many Canadians and First Nations, and resulted in the formation of the Idle No More movement, which was started by four women from Saskatchewan but quickly grew to include thousands of supporters from First Nations, Canada, and abroad. While the AFN had no official connection to the Idle No More movement, National Chief Shawn Atleo publicly expressed support for the protestors. However, Atleo and the AFN were criticized for not pushing the government hard enough. As Idle No More protesters called for action, Chief Theresa Spence of Attawapiskat went on a liquid fast, calling for a meeting with the prime minister and Governor General. Spence’s fast and the Idle No More protest have been credited with adding pressure to the demands by chief Atleo and the AFN for a high-level meeting with the prime minister. On 11 January 2013 the prime minister met with Atleo and other members of the AFN, and agreed to “high-level dialogue” on treaty relationships and land claims, greater oversight from the Prime Minister’s Office and the Privy Council, and future meetings with the national chief. Despite this, there was division within the AFN, with some chiefs (such as Grand Chief Derek Nepinak of Manitoba) boycotting the talk. Chief Spence herself did not attend because the Governor General was not present at the meeting. Some chiefs from Ontario and Manitoba even called for a vote of non-confidence in Atleo. Despite such criticism, the AFN was instrumental in persuading both the Liberal and NDP caucuses to endorse a declaration of 13 commitments requested by Chief Spence, which ended her fast in late January 2013.
Criticism of the AFN continued in February 2013, when it was revealed that the organization had worked closely with the RCMP leading up to the 2007 national Aboriginal day of action, which included protest rallies and blockades of major transportation routes. Documents revealed that AFN national chief Phil Fontaine met with the heads of the RCMP and the Ontario and Quebec police in the summer of 2007 to coordinate a consistent approach to the protest. Critics alleged that the AFN was working against its own people, and that its dependence on federal funding affected its ability to advocate effectively for First Nations. Like the Idle No More protests, the controversy over AFN cooperation with Canadian law-enforcement organizations illustrates the challenges of the AFN as a national organization representing hundreds of diverse First Nations and communities.

History of the AFN: Creation of a Canada-Wide Deliberative Assembly

In 1982, the AFN was created as a result of movements to restore chiefs as the voice of First Nations in a Canada-wide deliberative assembly. Prior to that time, the Canada-wide representation of Aboriginal people in Canada occurred through the National Indian Brotherhood (NIB), which centred on representation through provincial organizations (several of these organizations began as early as the 1920s and many were based on political traditions dating from before European contact). The NIB had succeeded the National Indian Council (founded 1961, see also: CONGRESS OF ABORIGINAL PEOPLES) and represented Aboriginal interests throughout the 1960s and 1970s under leaders Walter DELTER, George MANUEL, and Noel Starblanket.

In the late 1970s, First Nations increasingly pushed for the rights of self-government (see ABORIGINAL SELF-GOVERNMENT). In addition, by 1978, First Nations communities needed direct representation in order to respond to the federal government's constitutional proposals, including the proposed patriation of the Canadian Constitution. In 1979 hundreds of First Nations met in London, England, and determined to establish a new organization. Hundreds of chiefs met in Ottawa the following year, outlining their relationships with Canada and with one another in a manifesto entitled the Declaration of First Nations. At the National Indian Brotherhood general assembly of 1982, the Assembly of First Nations was officially founded.

The chiefs declared the Assembly the one and only voice of the First Nations in Canada, and elected David Ahenakew, former president of the Federation of Saskatchewan Indians, as the AFN's first national chief. The AFN maintained the National Indian Brotherhood as its administrative secretariat. The NIB remains the corporate body which enters into legal agreements ranging from funding arrangements with the federal government to leases. This has allowed the AFN to remain a deliberative assembly not subject to the regulations it might face as a corporation operating under a government-granted charter.

First Ministers Conferences, 1983-1987: Disunity and Disappointment

The main thrust of the AFN has been to press for the entrenchment of the right of First Nations self-government in the Canadian Constitution and to gain increased governmental and popular acceptance of the existing constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and treaty rights. When a Parliamentary Task Force on Indian First Nations Self-Government was created in 1982, the AFN was invited to have a non-voting ex-officio member work with the MPs on the committee. The AFN was also involved in the constitutional discussions of the 1980s.

As a result of the CONSTITUTION ACT of 1982, provision was made for a series of First Ministers Conferences "to identify and define" Aboriginal and treaty rights. The AFN represented the First Nations communities at the FMCs of 1983, 1984, 1985, and 1987. However, the positions assumed by the federal and provincial governments made it difficult for the AFN to maintain a unified position. Opinions particularly differed between those First Nations who had participated in the numbered treaties and those whose rights depend upon Aboriginal title. In the 11 numbered treaties (made from 1871 to 1921) First Nations ceded large tracts of land in northern Ontario, the prairies, and parts of British Columbia and the territories in exchange not only for cash settlements but also for a complex set of obligations from the federal government, including the establishment of reserves, annuities, and hunting and fishing rights. The numbered-treaty nations therefore had an explicit treaty relationship with the federal government, unlike many other First Nations, whose claims are based on the more general concept of inherent ABORIGINAL RIGHTS to a land or territory (also known as Aboriginal title). (See ABORIGINAL TREATIES.) In 1985, chiefs from the numbered-treaty nations formed the Prairie Treaty Nations Alliance in order to assert the treaty position and ensure the federal government upheld the specific rights guaranteed in the numbered treaties. There were further differences of opinion within the AFN because, at the same time as the First Ministers conferences, the federal government introduced legislation to reinstate some, but not all, former band members who had been struck from band membership. A major concern was that there were no corresponding increases either in land base or in funding for community services.

In 1987, the fourth and final conference in the series of First Ministers constitutional conferences on Aboriginal rights ended without agreement on First Nations self-government. At the final meeting, the AFN issued a Joint Proposal for Aboriginal Self-Government together with the Native Council of Canada, the Métis National Council, and the Inuit Committee on National Issues. Within a month of the breakdown of negotiations on Aboriginal rights, the First Ministers met privately at Meech Lake, where they agreed to describe Québec as "a distinct society" in the Canadian Constitution. Georges ERASMUS, National Chief of the AFN, was among many Aboriginal speakers to express frustration at the discrepancy between the First Ministers' successful accommodation of Québec and the breakdown of negotiations on native self-government.

Charlottetown Accord

During the constitutional negotiations that led to the CHARLOTTETOWN ACCORD in 1992, the AFN under Ovide MERCREDI held to the principle that the Aboriginal right to self-government is "inherent" and has not been extinguished by Canadian law (see CHARLOTTETOWN ACCORD: DOCUMENT). This principle was entrenched in the accord, with some notable restrictions. The accord was defeated in a public referendum in October 1992, and the failure of the accord has led the AFN to pursue other avenues toward First Nations self-government (see: LAND CLAIMS; Aboriginal People, Political Organization and Activism).

Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples

After the constitutional talks ended, governments expressed increasing unwillingness to discuss self-government; consequently, many First Nations turned to local priorities and the role of the national organization appeared to decline. As well, a number of grassroots situations, such as the events at OKA in the summer of 1990 and Ipperwash in 1995, strained the relationship between First Nations and the local, provincial, and federal authorities. The 1990 events at Oka and elsewhere across the country resulted in the establishment of the ROYAL COMMISSION ON ABORIGINAL PEOPLES (RCAP), of which former National Chief Georges Erasmus was named co-chair. In 1996 the Erasmus-Dussault Commission published a five-volume report with over 400 recommendations for a renewed relationship between Canada and First Nations. Although its critics have often represented the RCAP report as having been stillborn, the very presence of the report has tended to define political agendas in this field both for Aboriginal leaders and for ministers with responsibility for Aboriginal affairs, whether federal or provincial.

Debate Within the AFN

In 1997 Phil Fontaine of Manitoba took office as National Chief, basing his public agenda on a renewed relationship between First Nations and Canada. He placed particular emphasis on the economic development of First Nations communities, revision of the Indian Act, and a harmonious relationship with the government. This relationship prompted criticism from some First Nations, and contributed to his defeat in the AFN elections of 2000 by Matthew Coon Come, who adopted a more confrontational approach. Fontaine was re-elected as national chief in 2003 and 2006, and under his leadership the AFN negotiated both the Kelowna Accord and the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement.

Kelowna Accord

The AFN under Fontaine played an important role in the development of what would become known as the Kelowna Accord. In the 18 months leading up to the First Ministers Meeting on 24-25 November 2005 in Kelowna, BC, the Assembly of First Nations and four other Aboriginal organizations met with the federal, provincial, and territorial governments to develop a common strategy aimed at improving the quality of life of Aboriginal people in Canada. A paper released at the end of the meeting—“First Ministers and National Aboriginal Leaders: Strengthening Relationships and Closing the Gap”—announced a ten-year plan, including a $5 billion commitment over five years. Around $1.8 billion was allocated for education under the plan, with the goal of raising the high school graduation rate to the same level as the rest of Canada. Over $1.3 billion was earmarked for health services; the accord aimed to reduce infant mortality, youth suicide, and childhood diabetes by 20% in five years (and by 50% in ten years). Another $1.6 billion would be spent on improvements to housing and infrastructure, and $1.7 billion on “relationships and accountability” (supporting Aboriginal organizations in developing accountability practices, working with governments, and “engaging on land claim and self-government policies”). Additional funds would go to economic development.

While Paul Martin’s government endorsed the Kelowna Accord, the Liberals lost power shortly after in the general election. The new Conservative government under Stephen Harper agreed with the overall goals of the accord, but not necessarily with the approach to funding. The Conservative budget of 2006 allocated considerably less funding to these issues than outlined by the Kelowna Accord. In June 2006 Paul Martin introduced Bill C-292, An Act to Implement the Kelowna Accord, a private members bill which was supported by the opposition parties, and in 2008, the Kelowna Accord Implementation Act became law. In early 2013, during the Idle No More protests, the accord was held up as a model of Aboriginal-Canadian relations by several commentators.

Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement

The AFN also played a key role in negotiating the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, which was approved by all parties in May 2006 and came into effect in September 2007. Under the agreement, around $1.9 billion was set aside for the direct benefit of former students, while additional funds would compensate those students who were victims of sexual abuse, serious physical abuse, and “certain other wrongful acts which caused serious psychological consequences.” The agreement also included $60 million for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which would provide opportunities for former students, families, and communities to share experiences, as well as promote public awareness and education, and establish a research centre. Funds were also set aside for the Aboriginal Healing Foundation, and to commemorate the legacy of the residential schools.