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AFN battle over voting continues at confederacy.

OTTAWA

A Chiefs of Ontario letter shows that the fight over who votes and who doesn't at the Assembly of First Nations' twice-annual confederacy meetings will resume at the next chiefs' meeting in May.

National Chief Phil Fontaine sent a letter to all First Nation chiefs and councils on March 18, announcing that "the next Confederacy of Nations to be held at Saskatoon, Saskatchewan on May 18, 19, 20, 2004 will be conducted in accordance with Article 11 of the AFN Charter."

Article 11 states the "the Confederacy of Nations shall be composed of First Nations representatives of each region on the basis of one representative for each region plus one representative for each 10,000 First Nations' citizens of that region."

A two-page letter written in response on March 19 by acting Ontario Regional Chief Earl Commanda (who was filling in for vice-chief Charles Fox while Fox was on leave seeking, unsuccessfully, the federal Liberal Party's nomination in Kenora-Rainy River) urged all Ontario chiefs to attend the meeting in Saskatoon. Since there are 134 chiefs in Ontario and the province has been allotted just 18 votes under the charter, that's a call to arms.

"The Political Confederacy of Ontario met March 15 and agreed that Ontario's position would remain that all chiefs and proxies in attendance would retain the right to vote at this AFN confederacy," Commanda wrote. "The rationale for applying the AFN charter and breaking with convention and tradition that chiefs in assembly have come to expect is unclear."

British Columbia and Ontario chiefs waged the same battle during the December 2003 confederacy meeting in Ottawa. The chiefs of British Columbia wanted the assembly to operate according to the charter with a set number of voting delegates for each region. Ontario led a group of chiefs that wanted things to continue as they have for the last dozen or more years with every chief in attendance entitled to vote. Since many chiefs had travelled to Ottawa intending to participate as voting delegates and had not been given notice they would not be able to vote, B.C. backed off after a heated three-hour debate.

The issue exposed a number of the organizational problems the AFN faces. Aside from the fact that the organization has openly failed to follow its own written rules, the problem of who is in charge of the chiefs' organization was also highlighted. Although a national chief is elected, he is expected to be only a spokesman for the 600-plus other chiefs and to take direction from them. Last year, Fontaine sought to take the lead on an issue and publicly endorsed the federal government's proposed First Nations financial institutions legislation. He was brought into line when chiefs opposed to the legislation reminded him he must do what the chiefs in assembly tell him to do. This edict from the national chief's office about reverting to the charter is being seen as another attempt to assert authority over the chiefs in assembly by Fontaine and will be contested, Ontario sources say.

The confusion over voting started when AFN rules for annual general meetings (held every July) were applied to confederacy meetings (held every spring and in December). At the AGM, the charter calls for all chiefs to have a vote. Chiefs who attended the confederacies also wanted to vote and the rules were ignored but never formally changed.

For an organization to follow its own charter rules would seem to make sense but the AFN has not done so in recent memory, so it has become accepted practice for all chiefs who attend confederacy meetings to vote. This practice has become a key part of the political strategy employed by competing factions when debating contentious issues: if you want to ensure a favourable outcome on a vote, bring as many delegates as you can find and outnumber the opposition. Sources in B.C. say that since most meetings are held in Ottawa, Ontario chiefs have an unfair advantage because it's far less expensive for them to get to the meetings. AFN executive sources have said that tactic frustrates the will of the majority of chiefs and allows a small group to dictate the national agenda.

The AFN is currently involved in a renewal process led by Wendy Grant-John and Joe Miskokomon. That process is far from complete. Commanda asked why the national chief and executive have decided to make a major change to the way the organization does business before the renewal commission makes its recommendations.

That question will be asked again on the floor in Saskatoon.

Fontaine's letter stated that "representative status accords members the right to vote, move or second resolutions and speak." The national chief's letter does not explicitly say that other chiefs who attend who are not recognized as delegates--or other observers--will not be allowed to speak.

Based on the most recent statistics and the application of the rules in the charter, the total eligible for voting purposes is 88, Fontaine's letter said. The allocation of representatives by region is: Nova Scotia/Newfoundland, two; New Brunswick/PEI, two; Quebec/Labrador, seven; Ontario, 17; Manitoba, 12; Saskatchewan, 12; Alberta, 10; British Columbia, 12; Yukon, one; N.W.T., two and the national executive, 11.

"The process and task of determining who the official representatives are for confederacy meeting purposes is a regional matter. The AFN secretariat will rely on the regional chiefs to address this issue in their own respective regions," Fontaine also wrote.

BY PAUL BARNSLEY

Birchbark Writer
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Author:Barnsley, Paul
Publication:Ontario Birchbark
Date:May 1, 2004
Words:918
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