Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations Chief Perry Bellegarde is adamant that a news release he issued May 1 recommending that the FSIN not support federal First Nations education legislation is not the betrayal Grand Chief Doug Kelly of the Sto:lo Tribal Council says it was.
The day after FSIN’s news release, Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn Atleo stunned everyone by stepping down from his position. It is the first time in AFN history that a national chief has resigned.
Kelly told the Canadian Press that he spoke to Atleo the night before Atleo’s announcement. CP journalist Steve Rennie wrote, “The last straw came when Chief Perry Bellegarde… an erstwhile leadership rival to Atleo, announced his opposition to the federal legislation. Atleo felt betrayed.”
“I don’t believe it was in that regard in itself at all,” said Bellegarde of the news release. “I don’t believe there’s a connection. In my mind, (it was issued) in good conscience.”
Bellegarde said that although he serves as AFN Regional Chief for Saskatchewan, he also represents Saskatchewan Chiefs, and they were not pleased with the legislation.
On May 2, Atleo delivered a prepared statement clearly tying his resignation to the federal education bill, which was to receive second reading in the House of Commons. He said, “The current proposal on education is the latest attempt and a sincere, constructive effort on the part of Prime Minister Stephen Harper to take a step forward… I have fought for this work and to achieve this mandate. This work is too important and I am not prepared to be an obstacle to it or a lightening rod distracting from the kids and their potential. I am therefore, today resigning as National Chief.”
Since Atleo’s resignation, the federal government has put the legislation on hold.
“I’m surprised (Atleo) didn’t stay on at least until the bill passed, but I guess there’s more going on than meets the eye,” said Wab Kinew, director of Indigenous Inclusion at the University of Winnipeg. “He’s obviously facing a lot of pressure, including the threat of a non-confidence motion in the future and there’s probably personal considerations...”
Both Kinew, who at press time had indicated he was considering a run for AFN top job, and Mark Selman of Simon Fraser University’s Beedie School of Business, director, EMBA for Aboriginal Business and Leadership, believe that any leader for the AFN would have struggled.
“I think (Atleo) came into a very difficult circumstance where the Conservative government had basically torn up the Kelowna Accord and a lot of people had a lot of hopes for the Kelowna Accord, so almost anything that was done that was a matter of working with the government was going to be doomed,” said Selman, “and failure to work with the government meant little was going to happen because, like it or not, the reality is that the government controls many aspects of First Nations as long as the Indian Act is enforced and as long as the purse strings are held by the government, so it was a very difficult circumstance.”
First Nations’ frustrations with the government solidified in the Idle No More movement and came down hard on Atleo when he met with Prime Minister Stephen Harper in January 2013 during Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence’s hunger strike, said Kinew.
“I think people at Idle No More really took that personally and began to oppose him, rightly or wrongly. So basically that created animosity and led eventually to some of the bad feelings that led to his eventual resignation,” said Kinew.
Grand Chief Derek Nepinak, of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, voiced strong opposition of Atleo’s support for the proposed education legislation. In an interview with CBC News following Atleo’s resignation, Nepinak conceded that Atleo was in a difficult position and made the only decision he could.
Nepinak has also been a vocal opponent of the AFN, having taken his own action last summer to create an alternative organization.
Both Kinew and Selman believe that this is the time for the AFN to revisit its role and determine what direction the organization needs to head in.
“I actually think the AFN needs to do what it’s been talking about doing for a long time, which is to sit back and say, ‘Okay, what are we doing here? What would an effective organization be?’” said Selman.
“If the AFN is the organization that the rest of Canada turns to to try and figure out what First Nations people want, then the AFN should be listening to First Nations’ people themselves,” said Kinew. “We’ve got to find a way to bring the average First Nations citizen into the discussion as well as doing what the chiefs might want to.”
“I think the AFN is very relevant. You need a strong, national collective voice,” said Bellegarde. “But no organization is fine the way it sits. Everything constantly evolves and you have to deal with changes and adapt to changes. It’s how you adapt to changes… The AFN has to become more relevant, responsive and respectful because people are questioning it.”
Following Atleo’s resignation, AFN regional chiefs met and decided against appointing an interim leader. Further direction will be forthcoming on May 27 when the national Special Chiefs Assembly meets (after press deadline).
Bellegarde said an election for a new national chief should be held soon and he doesn’t rule out the possibility of running again.
“Once (the date is) determined, we go back to our Elders, our families, our communities to make that determination,” said Bellegarde. “All my life I’ve been … a helper or servant… as a leader, I’ve viewed my position and what I’ve done throughout my life as being just that, a servant and a helper of our people. And you take that going forward.”