Serving as interim national chief for the Assembly of First Nations since July, Ghislain Picard has decided to try to make the position his for the next term.
The Innu leader is one of three people vying to head the AFN in what many consider a pivotal point for the organization following Shawn Atleo’s sudden resignation in May.
“I’m very much affected by how our house has been shaken over the last few months and to me, I felt the same kind of anguish as my chiefs, not feeling good about how things turned out,” said Picard.
Picard, who also serves as AFN Regional Chief for Quebec and Labrador, was one of the first leaders to criticize Atleo’s stand on the First Nations Control of First Nations Education Act. Ultimately, it was dissent over the legislation that brought about Atleo’s downfall.
Picard says one of the strengths he brings to the position is the ability to listen.
“I am very good at listening. I think it’s important. In these very critical times you need someone who is able to listen and understand and certainly have the capacity to build consensus around issues. And I certainly have demonstrated that over the last 20 years,” Picard said, adding his background in communications is also an asset.
That ability to listen is what will guide him in restructuring the AFN, one of Picard’s priorities.
“What I would try to promote is the idea of having citizen forums. Why not seek our people’s opinion on how they see the AFN evolving over the next few years?” he said. “And to me it’s very important that we provide them with a space to express their opinions, good or bad. I think it is expected there will be criticism, but it should be constructive criticism.”
Public forums would be balanced by short-term action, said Picard, which would address the current structure through amendments to the charter within the first 12 months.
Among the changes that need to occur to ensure the organization “becomes more effective and more relevant” is establishing “adequate balance” between the country’s smaller and larger regions and determining how to give voice to the ever-increasing number of First Nations members living off-reserve.
“To me the AFN has always been a national political organization representing the interests of First Nations. It has to remain that but at the same time there are new realities. The AFN of today is not the AFN from 30 years ago. We need to adjust. We need as a national organization to evolve as our nations do,” said Picard. “So this is certainly a key priority because it conditions everything else. It conditions the way we engage with government, it conditions the way we engage with our people.”
Picard said he will continue to press the federal government for an inquiry into murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls, but will also encourage chiefs to consider holding their own inquiry.
“Tied with that is the whole issue of the state of things when it comes to our people,” said Picard. “It’s closely related to the failure of this government in terms of directing some very fundamental and basic issues, such as housing, such as education, such as infrastructure, drinking water – all of that I think is certainly a big issue.”
Picard cites his 22 years of experience on the executive, his ability to build consensus, and his willingness to step up to the challenges that face the AFN as his strengths.
“I think the leadership across the country has been challenged on many fronts, including the structure of the AFN (and) the education issue is very much key to this day. To me maybe there’s a sense of maybe a negative take (that) the AFN is not worth the time or effort to restructure it,” he said. “But obviously since I’m a candidate, I very much feel that the AFN can reinforce its structure and become a relevant organization.”