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AFN reeling, budget cut by half


Paul Barnsley, Windspeaker Staff Writer, Ottawa







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The Assembly of First Nations will have to operate this fiscal year on about half of the money it received last year. The Department of Indian Affairs (DIAND) has cuts AFN funding to $12 million from $19.8 million last year.

Sources say a variety of programs and positions are in jeopardy and morale is low. Several officials have said the quality of service provided to First Nations by the national organization is already suffering.

AFN staff believes the funding reduction is a direct response to the chiefs' decision to not participate in Indian Affairs Minister Robert Nault's governance consultations. Pressure created by the funding cuts has led to open political warfare on at least one front. Informed sources across the country expect a bitter debate on governance during the AFN's annual general meeting in Halifax from July 17 to 19.

Several reliable sources have confirmed the AFN turned down $2 million in funding when the chiefs refused to participate in the consultation process. It appears many members of the AFN executive are having second thoughts about that decision. The AFN executive is made up of the national chief, the regional vice-chiefs and the chairman of the AFN's Council of Elders, who serves in an advisory capacity.

When British Columbia vice-chief Herb Satsan George released his quarterly report to the chiefs in his region on June 25, it included a plea for support to back away from AFN resolution 15/2001, which called for the boycott of the governance consultation process.

"In B.C., many First Nations and First Nation organizations expressing considerable concern about the AFN's position have approached me. Some are even willing to dismiss the AFN completely in order to engage [DIAND] themselves in order to protect their interests. Not only could this result in dividing First Nations to the point where DIAND would quite successfully accomplish its objectives, it would render the AFN useless as an effective advocate and protectorate of our interests," George wrote. "As a result, I am working with the national executive, B.C. tribal leaders and provincial organizations to seek a way to resolve the difficult impasse that we have found ourselves in. An approach that we are pursuing is to seek approval from the chiefs at the Annual General Assembly in Halifax to have the national executive take some leadership by establishing a negotiations strategy on governance and directly engage the minister on this initiative."

Penticton Indian Band Chief Stewart Phillip, who is president of the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs (UBCIC), delivered a sharp reprimand to the vice-chief in a letter dated July 4.

"In our opinion, you and possibly the entire AFN national executive, are in 'willful breach' of a national mandate as per the AFN Charter and could be subject to disciplinary measures," Phillip wrote to George. "[F]rom the content of your quarterly report, it is obvious that you are actively undermining and backtracking on AFN resolution 15/2001, regarding AFN's 'Response to Proposed First Nations Governance Act.'"

The only disciplinary measure described in the AFN Charter is removal from office.

Phillip was angered by what he saw as an attempt by the vice-chief to suggest in the report that the UBCIC was in favor of this initiative. The UBCIC president made it clear he expects the AFN executive, of which George is a member, to follow the political direction provided by the member chiefs at the May Confederacy of Nations, held on the Musqueam First Nation near Vancouver, and continue the boycott.

Phillip rejected George's assertion the boycott was failing, undermined by First Nations that have broken ranks and agreed to participate in the governance consultation process.

"Secondly, your quarterly report points to those First Nations/First Nation organizations that are participating in Minister Nault's consultation process, such as those from the Alberta and Saskatchewan regions, as 'diminising the impact of a national boycott.'

"Our information is that not all of the First Nations in those regions are participating in Nault's process. In addition, you fail to mention those First Nations/First Nation organizations who have formally refused to participate in Nault's bogus consultations, such as the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, the Interior Alliance, the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, the Chiefs of Ontario and the Atlantic Policy Congress. In terms of numbers, those opposed to Nault's 'governance' consultations appear to be a significant bloc constituting a probable majority," he wrote. "In our view, your efforts to undermine AFN Resolution 15/2001, will only serve to help Minister Nault and not the First Nations you purport to represent. There is nothing stopping the First Nations Summit from approaching Minister Nault directly outside of AFN, and obviously there are already some First Nations/First Nation organizations that have no qualms about doing so. We know that Minister Nault has 'champions' for his legislative initiatives among us."

A legal opinion by Ottawa lawyer Dave Nahwegahbow, posted on the AFN Web site, advises against AFN participation in the consultations, Phillip reminded George.

"The greatest threats posed by this proposed legislation to Aboriginal and treaty rights are twofold: first, AFN or First Nation participation in its development and enactment could constitute or contribute to legal justification for infringement of such inherent rights; and secondly, it will divert focus from and pre-empt the actualization of, the inherent right of self-government," the lawyer wrote. "First of all, it is clear, that this process and potential legislative changes to the Indian Act have implications in regard to Section 35 existing Aboriginal and treaty rights. It is impossible to determine in advance, the exact impact of this legislation on First Nations. The nature and scope of Aboriginal and treaty rights are unique to each First Nation. he Supreme Court of Canada has concluded that each First Nation's Aboriginal and/or treaty right should be dealt with on a case-by-case basis. As a result, the proposed legislation may affect the rights of different First Nations differently."

In plain English, Nahwegahbow advised the chiefs that participation in the governance consultations could put First Nations in a position where they would provide the ammunition that would help the federal government score a decisive victory in the most fundamental area of dispute between First Nations and the Crown - the First Nations' inherent right to govern themselves.

Phillip closed his letter by quoting from the AFN charter, reminding George that members of the executive can be removed from office if they fail to follow the instructions of the chiefs in assembly. Those instructions are given in the form of resolutions passed during chiefs' assemblies.

Five different sources have told this publication the AFN executive is bitterly divided over this issue. The same political contacts all mentioned the rumor that impeachment proceedings against the executive and/or the national chief may be raised at the Halifax annual meeting. Two of those sources say it's rumored the Atlantic Policy Congress (APC) will seek to launch the impeachment action.

J.J. Bear, communications officer for the APC, was asked to confirm or deny the rumor.

"I haven't heard anything personally. Actually, even if I did know something, it would be something that I'd maybe keep secret. But as far as I know, I haven't heard anything," he replied.

Reached by phone on July 10, Chief Phillip said he has no plans to start any kind of disciplinary action against George or any member of the AFN executive. He said he wrote the letter because he felt they needed to be reminded he - or any other chief - could do so if the executive members lose sight of their responsibilities to the chiefs.

"No, no, no. Absolutely not. Had we considered that, there would hav been a draft resolution attached to the letter," he said. "Herb and I have enjoyed a friendly, cordial relationship for as long as I've known him. This isn't a personal issue. In a sense, it was Herb that attached his name to the proposal. But we suspect it was the brainchild of the executive. It's really the executive here that we're serving notice on."

This is not the first time the B.C. chiefs have felt the executive has failed to follow a resolution, he said.

"The focus isn't on discipline as much as raising the concern that springs not only from this particular instance," he explained. "You may recall back in '99 when the AGA was held in Vancouver in conjunction with the National Congress of American Indians. The Delgamuukw implementation strategy resolution was fiercely debated over the space of two days and it went through with over 70 per cent support. In the months that followed, Chief Art Manuel wrote (former national chief) Phil Fontaine a number of letters asking for action to be taken on that resolution and, basically, we were stonewalled. Here we are, three AGAs later, still talking about the Delgamuukw implementation strategy. It's been argued and debated through a number of Confederacy meetings and AGAs and yet the organization isn't prepared to resource it.

"If you look at the letter, that's the substance and essence of our complaint. We formulate resolutions through discussions with our constituents. We take those resolutions to the various meetings of the AFN. We put them on the floor and we debate and have succeeded in having the resolution passed. And it's at that point that we take issue with the actions of AFN, particular with the executive committee who seem to pick and choose what resolutions they want to support. We find it to be very inappropriate for the executive to tamper with resolutions and manipulate them and reshape them to their own liking."

Phillip believes the financial trouble the AFN is facing because of the budget redu