American Indian Heritage Month: Commemoration vs. Exploitation
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Assembly of First Nations

The Assembly of First Nations (AFN) was established in 1982 as Canada's national organization representing the First Nations' political interests. Following the Canadian government's announcement that it had initiated the Constitutional repatriation process, the National Indian Brotherhood (NIB), the Native Council of Canada (NCC), and the Inuit Committee on National Issues were invited to participate in the 1978 deliberations. By the time of the nation's adoption of self-governance in 1982, however, the NIB, once considered Canada's premier First Nations political organization, had imploded from internal dissension. Emerging from the organizational debris was the Assembly of First Nations (AFN).

The evolution of the AFN can be traced to the establishment of the National Indian Council (NIC) in 1961. This organization was created to represent Canadian First Nations groups, including status Indians, nonstatus Indians, Inuit, and the Métis. However, the conflicting interests of the various First Nations groups led the NIC to split into two unaffiliated organizations in 1968: The NIB was formed to represent status Indians, while the Métis established the Canadian Métis Society. The NIB emerged prior to the federal government's 1969 white paper policy, which called for the assimilation of all the First Nations peoples into Canadian society and the elimination of the mention of Indians from the Canadian Constitution. Following the white paper's release, however, the NIB aggressively and successfully lobbied Parliament to rescind the unpopular policy proposal.

For the next thirteen years, the NIB's organizational structure remained unchanged. This became a cause of friction, due primarily to the fact that NIB members were appointed, not elected. Complaints asserting that the NIB was not accountable to the chiefs were politically destabilizing. Unsure that the NIB could effectively represent their interests, 300 status Indians and First Nations chiefs arrived in London, England, in 1979, in an attempt to halt the repatriation of the Constitution, causing even greater dissension among First Nations leaders. First Nations confidence in the NIB failed after a number of questionable moves by its founder, Del Riley, which were followed by calls for organizational reform. The discussion of organizational restructuring focused on the need to create a body that was representative and accountable to First Nations community leaders. It was at this point that the NIB began the transition which led to the formation in 1982 of the AFN. The AFN was an organization open to the chiefs representing all of the status Indian bands in Canada, as opposed to being an organization of regional representatives. The new structure permitted First Nations leaders to formulate and administer AFN policies.

In response to the First Nations' lobbying efforts, Canada revised its Constitution in 1982 and recognized aboriginal rights. The Constitution recognized the Métis, Inuit, status Indians, and nonstatus Indians of Canada as aboriginal people, while also affirming "existing aboriginal and treaty rights." From 1983–1987, the AFN met with the provincial premiers at four First Ministers Conferences in an attempt to define aboriginal self-government. The AFN also began working closely with other prominent lobbying groups and organizations, such as the United Nations, in an attempt to convince Canada to uphold the spirit and intent of treaties. By the mid-1980s, the AFN had become an influential contributor to the ongoing Constitutional debates, as well as a critic of the U.S.–Canada Free Trade Agreement and other proposed legislative changes and issues affecting Canada's First Nations. AFN resistance helped scuttle the Meech Lake Accord in 1990, which proposed Constitutional amendments that recognized Quebec's distinct society while simultaneously ignoring distinct First Nations societies. This, in turn, resulted in the federal government's openly consulting with First Nations leaders prior to drafting the Charlottetown Accord in 1992, which was rejected by Canadians in a national referendum in 1992. Had the Accord been successful, aboriginal self-government would have been realized, significantly augmenting the First Nations' political influence.

Throughout the 1990s, the AFN continued working with the federal government while zealously lobbying for the formal recognition of aboriginal self-government and the expansion of aboriginal rights. Once again, in 2001, the Canadian government put proposed changes to legislation on the agenda. Without consulting First Nations leaders, federal officials in 2001 proposed legislative changes known as the First Nations Governance Initiative (FNGI) that many AFN delegates considered analogous to the termination policy embodied in the 1969 white paper policy. After years of AFN-led resistance, the Liberal government in 2004 rescinded its unpopular initiative.

Yale D. Belanger

Further Reading
Gibbins, Roger, and J. Rick Ponting. 1980. Out of Irrelevance: A Socio-Political Introduction to Indian Affairs in Canada. Toronto, ON: Butterworths.; Richardson, Boyce. 1989. Drumbeat: Anger and Renewal in Indian Country. Toronto, ON: Summerhill Press.; Sanders, Douglas. 1983. "The Indian Lobby." In And No One Cheered. Federalism: Democracy and the Constitution Act. Edited by Keith Banting and Richard Simeon, 301–333. Toronto, ON: Methuen.

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