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AFN Supports Direct Action?

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Issue: 47 Section: Canadian News Geography: Atlantic Halifax Topics: social movements, Indigenous

August 4, 2007

AFN Supports Direct Action?

Day of Action discussed, criticized at AFN General Assembly

by Diane Simon

Demonstrators at a Calgary rally during the AFN's Day of Action on June 29. [flickr/cc 2.0] Photo: Grant Neufeld

HALIFAX--At the annual general Assembly of First Nations (AFN), July 10-12, First Nations leaders from across Canada resolved to continue to hold "Days of Action" to uphold native rights. The assembled chiefs also passed a resolution mandating the AFN to uphold the rights of Day of Action participants against "politically motivated reprisals" and to ensure they are "treated with due process, consideration and fairness."

Underlying the resolutions, however, was a fundamental tension between the AFN's leadership and grassroots people.

The last resolution is seen as providing implicit support for Shawn Brant, a member of the Bay of Quinte Mohawk community in Ontario, who was arrested for breach of bail conditions after participating in a blockade of CN Rail lines. Brant was repeatedly portrayed in media reports as a "militant" in opposition to "peaceful" AFN-mandated protesters.

The resolution followed a long discussion, in which several chiefs passionately voiced what they saw as the necessity for direct action to defend the future of native peoples in Canada. Many specifically spoke in support of Brant and the Bay of Quinte Mohawks.

Terrence Nelson from the Roseau River First Nation in Manitoba said that native people have to look beyond the government to solve issues of poverty and human rights.

Nelson said that Canada is thriving on resources that belong to First Nations, and that First Nations need to assert their legal rights to those resources and move towards self-determination. "The resource wealth of our land...supports every Canadian," said Nelson.

Nelson's comments reflect increased grassroots pressure on the AFN to take action. The AFN, however, receives its funding from the Canadian federal government, putting it in a tricky position. In the past, AFN funding has been severely cut when a leader was seen as too confrontational.

Normally, time is alloted to the AFN's National Chief to address comments made in discussion at an assembly. However, current National Chief Phil Fontaine opted to remain silent, saying that he would respond in a few weeks. Instead, he gave over his alloted speaking time to Nelson.

Many First Nations, including Roseau River, have called for direct action to assert native rights, but the AFN as a whole has been limited to "raising awareness." Fontaine cited a poll showing 70 per cent of Canadians supporting the Day of Action and said he wanted to continue to build support.

However, others say little has changed, despite the apparent support of the majority of non-native Canadians. Some critics question the legitimacy of the AFN as a representative body.

"The 1876 Indian Act was how the Canadian state imposed these band councils over our traditional forms of governance and social organization," said Gord Hill, a Kwakwaka'wakw artist and organizer, in an interview with No One Is Illegal Radio.

"When the AFN calls for a national Day of Action, we're opposed to it. A big part of that is that the AFN's objective is to gain more support and more funding from the Canadian government."

"A lot of people just assume that the AFN is a legitimate organization that actually does represent our people. We're trying to say no, it's not a legitimate organization; it's a state-funded and -founded organization whose main purpose is to assimilate our peoples."

"The Day of Action is a way to make itself relevant," said Hill, "And to portray itself as a pseudo-militant organization that stands up and fights for the rights of the people, when in actuality, they represent the interests of government and big business."

Participating in the Day of Action was about solidarity, Susan Levi-Peters, chief of Elsipogtog (Big Cove) First Nation in New Brunswick told the assembly. Levi-Peters called for more solidarity between the AFN leadership and all those organizing in support of native rights.

Nelson ignited controversy in 2006 when he told reporters, "There's only two ways to deal with white people to have an effective resolution of the issues."

"You either pick up the gun and deal with the issue, or you stand between the white man and his money."

Nelson explained the comments to the assembly, emphasizing that Canada's economic structure is based on natural resources, and that those same natural resources are being stolen from native people on an ongoing basis.

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