Newsletter: Could opening up Assembly of First Nations elections to all Indigenous people make it more relevant?

I wanted to ask re-elected national chief Perry Bellegarde about the AFN’s plans for urban Indigenous initiatives, but he didn’t return my calls.

The Assembly of First Nations’ election of its national chief last week in Vancouver got me thinking about an old argument: How relevant is this national advocacy body that’s meant to represent Indigenous people?

I’m not the first person to raise this concern. It’s an argument that’s been percolating for several years and resurged in the wake of this election. But the question remains: How representative is the AFN really, and what would happen if every Indigenous person of voting age had the right to vote for the national chief?

Granted, the AFN refers to itself as an advocacy body, not a governing body. But as an advocacy body, it purports to represent “more than 900,000 people living in 634 First Nation communities and in cities and towns across the country” — and its work impacts that population. So shouldn’t all the individuals impacted by the AFN’s advocacy have a vote in the election of its national chief? Can we imagine for a moment what shape that could take? (And would the AFN still be led by a man?)

Perry Bellegarde was re-elected as the national chief of the AFN on July 25, 2018. The election saw only 522 votes cast by all the chief councillors or their proxies, since ballots are cast by each First Nation — not by their individual members. But there are nearly one million First Nations people in Canada. That number tells a story because if so few Indigenous people can vote for national spokesperson, then is it any wonder why the AFN is criticized by some Indigenous people as being irrelevant?

Why not open up the voting to all First Nations people of voting age? This could bring fresh ideas, new energy, more leadership accountability and, hopefully, make the AFN more relevant to the day-to-day lives of more Indigenous people, especially those who have left their home reserves and now live in urban centres.

Now, I know Indigenous people aren’t marching en masse in city streets demanding the AFN vote. And I know that logistically, making the vote universal would be expensive. But as a gesture of reconciliation, the AFN could consider partnering with Elections Canada for instance, and use its infrastructure, resources and election know-how to pull it off.

Imagine the benefits of broadening the vote. What if the AFN prioritized advocating not just on behalf of Indigenous people on reserves but also on behalf of the increasing number of Indigenous people who have left their reserves? According to Statistics Canada, the Indigenous population is “rapidly” growing (by 39 per cent from 2006 to 2016) — and an increasing percentage of that population lives off reserve.

In 2011, 50.7 per cent of the country’s then-637,660 First Nations people with “registered Indian status” lived off reserve. By 2016, that percentage had climbed to about 55 per cent of First Nations people with “registered Indian status” or treaty status living off reserve, And more than half of all Indigenous people, which includes Métis and Inuit, lived in cities.

So the number of First Nations people living off reserve and in cities isn’t shrinking — it’s growing.

Granted, the AFN hasn’t completely ignored urban Indigenous issues. In 2017 it called for an extension to the federal government’s Urban Aboriginal Strategy, which the government renewed to continue assisting Indigenous organizations and service providers to better meet the needs of urban Indigenous people. But the AFN didn’t create that program; it just advocated for it. What else has the AFN done for urban Indigenous people? It needs to spearhead initiatives of its own, based on ideas generated directly from the urban Indigenous people it claims to represent.

Of course, the AFN is a colonial construct operating in a colonial system that isn’t meant to benefit Indigenous people. But moving around in that system, lobbying and advocating gets your issues heard, gets you resources and gains you allies, so Indigenous people benefit by extension. If this is the case, then why shouldn’t they have as much of a say as possible?

When asked by CBC Early Edition host Stephen Quinn about the apparent “disconnect” between the AFN chiefs and the larger First Nations population, newly re-elected chief Bellegarde said “all chiefs and councils represent all their citizens, on and off reserve. They represent their men, their youth, their women, their Elders. They represent everyone.” If Indigenous citizens don’t like things and want change, they can bring their concerns to their chiefs and councils, Bellegarde said.

But Bellegarde also acknowledged that the AFN’s structure around those chiefs emerged from the Indian Act, and said he’s committed to looking at ways to improve that system. “So we’ll always look at ways to make it better, make it more effective, make it more efficient, make it more relevant, make it more responsive and more respectful of the diversity of our nations and tribes across Canada.”

Pressed by Quinn on whether the AFN and the chiefs represent the interests and concerns of Indigenous people in urban areas right now, Bellegarde replied, “of course we do,” and insisted that the AFN advocates for government investment to support Indigenous people and services both on and off reserve.

But that doesn’t fully answer my questions.

Bellegarde has yet to return my repeated calls for an interview, but I wanted to ask him how exactly the AFN can better engage Indigenous peoples, especially in urban areas, and whether those individuals should get to cast their own ballot directly for national leader.

I wanted to explore the question of relevance more deeply and ask what forms that could take. I wanted to know what other plans, beyond calling for an extension to the Urban Aboriginal Strategy, the AFN might have in store for Indigenous people living in cities.

It’s not good enough to say that urban Indigenous people should just be in touch with their chief councillors on reserve about AFN matters; that’s paternalistic. Urban First Nations people need real agency — and not just to be an afterthought after on-reserve interests.  

Is the AFN ready for a female national chief?


Perry Bellegarde is one of a long list of men who have served as AFN national chief since its launch in 1982. In fact, only men have served as national chief throughout the AFN’s history.

In the most recent election, Manitoba’s Sheila North Wilson garnered 125 votes and placed a distant second to Bellegarde. Katherine Whitecloud, also from Manitoba, dropped out of contention after earning only 19 votes on the first ballot.

As of this writing, I’m still trying to find out how many female chief councillors there are in Canada.

It struck me, though, that we have Indigenous female CEOs, university professors, executive directors, lawyers, doctors and business owners. Some may say that it doesn’t matter what gender the leader is, as long as they can do the job? Well, who’s been doing the job since 1982?

Is the AFN ready for a female national chief? If you even have to ask that question then there is already a problem.

Do you think it’s time for the AFN to elect a female national chief? Let me know via FacebookTwitter or email. Finally, if you enjoyed reading this newsletter, please ask your friends to subscribe.

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