Questions about First Nation unity abound as AFN kicks off annual meeting

Shawn AtleoIf Assembly of First Nations Chief Shawn Atleo keeps a 'to-do' list, it might look a little something like this today:

- Help kick-off the AFN Annual General Meeting

- Withstand an overt challenge to my leadership

- Keep an eye on rival group looking to usurp the authority of the AFN

Tuesday marks day one of a three day AFN Annual General Meeting, in Whitehorse, which will offer sessions on treaty implementation, First Nations education and natural resource strategies.

It will also include the usual dose of First Nation 'politics.'

According to the Globe and Mail, some chiefs will be calling for a review on Atleo's leadership.

Alvin Fiddler, the deputy grand chief of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation in Northern Ontario, will arrive in Whitehorse with a motion that aims to strengthen the National Chief’s accountability to his people. It calls on the AFN’s Council of Elders to investigate the events leading up to a contentious meeting on Jan. 11 between Mr. Atleo and Mr. Harper.

“I think we have concerns with the AFN, with the national chief, in terms of how he’s conducted himself, especially to do with these meetings with the Prime Minister. They are almost like secret meetings. We don’t hear about them until after the fact through the media,” Mr. Fiddler said Monday. “There has to be a greater transparency at this point, and accountability back to our leadership and back to our communities about what this organization is doing for us. ”

Meanwhile, hundreds of kilometres away at the Onion Lake First Nation in Saskatchewan, another group of chiefs will be attempting to launch a rival group to negotiate treaties with the federal government. This group — to be called the National Treaty Alliance — is led by outspoken Manitoba Grand Chief Derek Nepinak.

Nepinak wrote an open letter to Atleo last week.

"AFN does not have the authority to bind the Treaty First Nations of Manitoba or to carry out any activity related to the alleged “Implementation” or “Enforcement” of Treaty obligations," he wrote.

"As such they do not support the creation of the AFN Chiefs Taskforce on Treaty Implementation and Enforcement. Chiefs of Manitoba have been very clear that our Treaties cannot be negotiated away behind closed doors at high level tables in Ottawa.

"The Chiefs in Manitoba have declared that in order to reset the Treaty relationship, the Government of Canada must abandon their policy management approach and institute a Treaty territory by Treaty territory, Nation to Nation approach. Therefore, negotiations at the highest level should not be between AFN and Canada but with the Treaty holders and the Government of Canada, according to historical protocols."

Nepinak isn't the only one to suggest that value of the AFN — which currently represents more than 600 elected chiefs across the country— is diminishing.

"Our people here have been telling us get out of AFN … and work on the basis of our treaty," Onion Lake Chief Wallace Fox told Postmedia News.

For his part, Atleo has remained diplomatic saying there's room for more than one national First Nations organization.

[ Related: National Chief Atleo Comments on New Federal Cabinet]

Ernie Crey, a policy adviser for the Stó:lō Tribal Council in British Columbia, says that Atleo has to be "a nice guy" about the internal rifts.

Crey, however, notes that he doesn't have to be.

"Some key chiefs agree that Atleo still enjoys lots of support," Crey told Yahoo! Canada News.

"Their take is that it's still the embittered folks from last year who lost out to Atleo [in the AFN elections] who are still tossing their pablum around the room.

"Jesus, someone, please, hand them a soother."

[ Related: Competing aboriginal meetings hint at schism within First Nations community ]

In spite of their motives, Crey believes all the dissension hinders the First Nations' agenda.

"It's an unfortunate move on their part because it's divided the premier Aboriginal organization. And it leaves First Nations people from one coast to the other confused about what's going on. And it's got Canadians bewildered," he said with regard to the meetings an Onion Lake.

"How do they expect to move two agendas — when they're facing all the challenges in the world moving one agenda through a single organization? How would they expect to make progress with Ottawa and provincial capitals if there are two competing voices on the national scene?

"This is unfortunate. They're going to create a climate of confusion...and they threaten to throw the AFN into disarray."

(Photo courtesy of Reuters)

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