The Assembly of First Nations’ (AFN) new chief has a lot of work ahead of him, mending and improving government and aboriginal relationships, according to Canim Lake Band Chief Mike Archie.
Perry Bellegarde, the former Chief of the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations, won handily with more than 60 per cent of the votes on the first ballot in an election held in Winnipeg on Dec. 10.
However, the vote was also held amidst criticism from grassroots Indigenous rights groups, Idle No More and Defenders of the Land, which believe the AFN, mandated to advance the interests of aboriginal communities across Canada, is failing and disconnected from the communities it is suppose to serve.
Bellegarde lost a close race for the AFN’s top job in 2009 to Shawn Atleo, who stepped down in May after supporting Bill C-33, a controversial education bill that received opposition from many First Nations across the country.
“Regardless if it’s Perry Bellegarde or anybody else in that position, I think the AFN has a lot of work to do on its relationship with the government, as well as our First Nations communities across Canada,” says Archie.
Archie adds he believes the AFN is still a viable source to advance First Nations issues.
In a statement, Bernard Valcourt, Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development, congratulated Bellegarde, adding the federal government believes Aboriginal Peoples should have the same quality of life as all other Canadians.
“We have taken action to help address some of the key impediments to treaty negotiations and are engaging Aboriginal People on broader reforms to advance reconciliation and encourage economic development across the country.”
The AFN vote also comes after the Supreme Court of Canada’s historical decision in June affirming aboriginal title to the Tsilhqot’in Nation of its traditional territory in the British Columbia Interior. The ruling ostensibly gives First Nations more leverage in land-use decision-making and resource development negotiations on their territory.
Archie says the recognition of title lands and rights and advancing the Tsilhqot’in decision are issues the AFN should be focused on.
“We have to benefit from the resources of our traditional territory. So far, the system has basically denied the very existence of aboriginal people, our rights and our title to the land, with a system that’s a foreign system that really didn’t work for us.
“We need to be recognized as a government. Our voice needs to be heard.”
Archie stresses the importance of local government-to-government relationships in advancing his community’s interests.
“I think the bottom line is, as a First Nations community here in Canim Lake, aside from the First Nations political table and the challenges we face, we’re always mindful and respectful of our relationship with the 100 Mile area. That’s key to us moving forward.”