Saturday, 11 January 2014

Assembly of First Nations

Assembly of First Nations (AFN), primary lobbying organization for all Status Indians (aboriginal people in Canada designated by the Indian Act as Indians). Formed in 1982 by the chiefs of most of Canada’s Indian bands, the AFN promotes specific goals that the bands agree upon. Canada’s Indian bands generally identify themselves as First Nations or parts of First Nations. The intent of the organization is to give voice and direction to issues confronting First Nations across the country.
The AFN’s structure is set out in the organization’s charter, adopted in 1985. The basic component of the AFN is the First Nations-in-Assembly, which convenes annually. Chiefs from each of the more than 600 Indian bands in Canada bring concerns to the assembly meetings, and the assembly debates possible actions. Approval by at least 60 percent of the membership is necessary for an AFN resolution.
The AFN is led by an executive committee, consisting of a national chief and ten vice chiefs. The executive committee implements AFN resolutions, including leading lobbying efforts and producing reports. The national chief, elected every three years by the AFN members, is the AFN’s official spokesperson. As spokesperson, the national chief comments on government policy and programs that affect First Nations peoples, as well as on national issues. The ten vice chiefs represent the regions of New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia and Newfoundland Island, Québec and Labrador, Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, British Columbia, the Yukon Territory, and the Northwest Territories. The vice chiefs are also elected every three years. The vice chiefs determine policy and direction for the AFN, bringing issues to the members for debate, discussion, and resolution. The executive committee and its support staff are known as the AFN secretariat.
Other important bodies in the organization include the Council of Elders and the Confederacy of Nations. The Council of Elders develops rules and procedures for the AFN. The Confederacy of Nations comprises representatives from each of the ten regions, including leaders of regional First Nations organizations and delegates. The number of delegates is determined by the population of First Nations people in a region: 1 delegate for each 10,000 First Nations people. The Confederacy meets twice a year to review and clarify First Nations-in-Assembly resolutions and to address any issues that come up between the annual assembly meetings. The Priorities and Planning Committee recommends actions based on reports from 15 commissions that deal with issues such as health, education, spiritual development, treaties, and finance.
The federal government (through a number of different departments, including the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development) provides the bulk of the AFN’s funding, with individual bands contributing additional money. AFN membership is voluntary, but nearly all band chiefs belong.
A Early Indian Organizations
After Canadian Confederation in 1867, aboriginal groups formed many different local, regional, and national organizations to respond to white domination. However, communication among these early First Nations organizations was difficult because the Indian land reserves (lands set aside for Indian bands) were separated by great distances. Local First Nations leaders lacked the funds for the travel necessary to meet and develop a viable national organization. In addition, the government often interfered with Indian organizations. It sometimes removed organization leaders it considered a threat to federal Indian policy. The government also co-opted other First Nations leaders by appointing them to positions within the Department of Indian Affairs.
In 1961 the National Indian Council (NIC) was established to represent most Canadian aboriginal groups. Aboriginal groups in Canada include Status Indians, non-Status Indians, Inuit, and Métis (people of mixed European and indigenous heritage). However, the aboriginal groups had conflicting interests. Some Indian groups without land reserves wanted them while others did not, and many Status Indians opposed attempts by non-Status Indians to gain government recognition and benefits. The NIC split in 1968. The National Indian Brotherhood (NIB) formed to represent only Status Indians. Soon after, the Métis formed the Canadian Métis Society (later renamed the Native Council of Canada), and the Inuit formed several different organizations.
B The Formation of the AFN
The NIB struggled with internal and external problems in the 1970s and early 1980s. A growing number of First Nations people objected to representation by the NIB, whose members were appointed not elected. Many First Nations people believed the NIB was not accountable to the chiefs they had elected. In addition, the NIB lost important government funding because it aggressively lobbied against some federal government initiatives.
In 1979 hundreds of First Nations chiefs met in London, England, and called for the establishment of a new organization of which they themselves would be members. The chiefs issued a Declaration of First Nations in 1980 in which they stated that the First Nations were sovereign nations within a larger nation. The First Nations intended to achieve self-government through negotiation with the federal government. In 1982, at the NIB general assembly in Penticton, British Columbia, the NIB became the AFN, with membership open to the chiefs of all of the Status Indian bands in Canada.
C The Fight over Aboriginal Rights
In 1982 Canada revised its constitution (see Constitution of Canada). In response to intense lobbying by indigenous groups, the government inserted clauses into the new constitution that recognized aboriginal rights. The constitution acknowledged a group of people called “aboriginals” that included Métis, Inuit, Status Indians, and non-Status Indians, and it affirmed “existing aboriginal and treaty rights.” However, the constitution neither listed nor defined these rights. The provincial premiers planned to resolve this and other aboriginal issues at a series of meetings known as the First Ministers Conferences.
From 1983 to 1987 the AFN and other aboriginal lobbying groups met with the premiers and federal officials at four First Ministers Conferences. The aboriginal organizations found themselves at odds, and conflicts even arose among the bands represented by the AFN. Some provinces refused to consider aboriginal self-government. No agreements resulted from the conferences, and aboriginal people were angry and disappointed.
Shortly after the final First Ministers Conference failed, the Canadian government was forced to deal with separatist demands from Québec, which had never signed the 1982 constitution. The premiers promptly met and drafted the Meech Lake Accord, a proposed amendment to the constitution that recognized Québec as a distinct society. Despite lobbying by the AFN, the new agreement ignored aboriginal self-government issues. The accord failed in 1990, due in great part to opposition from Elijah Harper, an Ojibwa-Cree representative in the Manitoba provincial legislature.
In 1992 the federal government, with input from the provinces, drafted the Charlottetown Accord. This new proposed amendment to the constitution included special status for Québec, and it provided for aboriginal self-government after negotiations with the federal government. Although the AFN initially opposed the accord, it ultimately supported it. The Charlottetown Accord was presented to Canadians in a national referendum in October 1992 and they rejected it.
The AFN continues to push for self-government, sovereignty, and self-determination for Status Indians. It also works with other national aboriginal organizations on issues of common interest. The AFN promotes its views with the Canadian government, United Nations commissions, and other international bodies. Historically, the AFN has focused on the issues of rural, reserve-based Indians, including land claims, treaty rights, and local self-determination. As nearly half of the Canadian Status Indians now live in cities, the AFN is beginning to deal with the social, economic, and political issues facing urban Indians.

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