Staying on message: AFN’s Special Chiefs Assembly recap

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With the number of Indigenous issues making national headlines in recent months –such as the Colten Boushie verdict, the Kinder Morgan protest, and the papal non-apology – staying focused can be a daunting task at Assembly of First Nations meetings. The other challenge is giving everything on the agenda due attention.

Day one of this year’s Special Chiefs Assembly, held May 1-2 in Gatineau, saw federal opposition leaders address the assembly, a session on modern treaties and an address from federal ministers Mélanie Joly and Carolyn Bennett. Then the congregation of chiefs and proxies witnessed a first for the AFN.

The Chiefs Committee on Languages took to the floor and addressed Heritage Minister Joly in their traditional languages. For the first time in the AFN’s history their questions were translated for the minister in real time.

The sheer volume of files and issues in the AFN’s mandate is staggering, yet many criticize the organisation for overstepping boundaries. This became apparent following during a conflict that erupted during day one

Mohawk Elder and activist Kahn-Tineta Horn stole the microphone from a chief and declared the AFN had no right to speak for her as a sovereign citizen, an echo of a similar controversy during the AFN’s December meeting.

Later on, even National Chief Perry Bellegarde acknowledged the frustration many feel toward the organization when referencing his time as chief of his own community. But still they soldiered on.

By the afternoon of day one, when NDP leader Jagmeet Singh and Conservative Party leader Andrew Scheer addressed the assembly, almost everyone was wearing “Justice for Colten” buttons. Boushie’s family members were in attendance and asked, on day two, to join the executive on stage during the Criminal Code Reform portion of the agenda.

The motion passed unanimously with a standing vote. Then, in a cathartic show of respect, the family of Colten Boushie was wrapped in blankets on stage and honoured by the AFN in a ceremony.

Day two saw Prime Minister Trudeau take centre stage. While the Kinder Morgan pipeline expansion was on the minds of many, both the chiefs and Trudeau seemed to sidestep the issue. He stayed on message and focused on federal legislation, wowed the crowed with topics focused on the rights and recognition framework as well as the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Trudeau spent a lot of time answering questions and even wore the raincoat, gifted to him by the AFN, before leaving the meeting.

Day two also saw Grand Chief Shelia North Wilson announce that she would enter the race for National Chief of the AFN to held this July.

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