Assembly of First Nations seeks public input

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TORONTO - The relevancy of Canada's Assembly of First Nations (AFN) rests
on one basic concept, according to an Ontario Chief.

"Should we remove or replace the Indian Act?" Chief Vernon Roote of the
Saugeen reserve in southwest Ontario politely asked. "It's a simple
question that can be given to our own communities and membership."

Roote was one of a couple dozen speakers who addressed the two-person panel
in Toronto during two days of a renewal commission staged by the AFN. The
purpose of these public forums was to strengthen the functionality of the
national body by gathering input at the grassroots level towards its future
goals and vision.

As the AFN approaches its 20th anniversary, there have been calls for
numerous years to determine what direction it should take when acting as
the voice for Canada's 631 bands and nearly 1 million Aboriginals. For
eight months the panel crisscrossed the country at 22 cities and reserves,
offering the microphone to anyone to share their views on how the Assembly
should promote First Nations in Ottawa.

For Roote the AFN and Canada's indigenous people have come to a "fork in
the road" regarding self-government. If Native Canadians want to pursue
their own destiny, he claimed, a model of a central government is required
to include an office of Aboriginal rights "so communities aren't forced to
move ahead to fight the court system by themselves."

If Canada's bands want to remain as wards of the state by being the
responsibility of the federal government (the department of Indian and
Northern Affairs), Roote continued, "We shouldn't be schmoozing politicians
at any level because it's none of our business."

Heading the Toronto commission was Joe Miskokomon who has been one of two
co-chairs to preside over all the panel sessions. After all the information
and opinions have been gathered, he will reside over the focus groups that
will condense the thousands of notes which are to be presented to the AFN
in the fall of 2005 before any implementation.

By giving everybody an equal voice during these hearings, Miskokomon said,
one of the challenges for the AFN in general is in dealing with vast
differences within its membership regarding geography, history and economic
development. He cited that bands vary in treaty history from those reserves
in the eastern part of the country whose lands were determined prior to
Canada's Confederation in 1867 through the present day where treaty
negotiations are occurring throughout the entire province of British
Columbia.

"How do you hold a national assembly around different histories, culture,
language and who all believe they have some sovereignty," said Miskokomon
about the diversity of Canada's Native population. "It's hard to bring
under one umbrella group into a meaningful model."

Yet, for all of the voices that have emerged, a common trend has developed.
"When we are clearly working on Aboriginal rights, we are fairly strong and
united that these historical documents have to be protected," Miskokomon
stated.

Not only were the concerns of bands listened to, but one of the goals of
the commission was to address urban First Nations as half of Canada's
Natives live off-reserve. The downtown Toronto forum provided a convenient
location for Tracey King, an academic and financial aid counselor for the
First Nations House at the University of Toronto.

As colleges and universities are generally located in cities, most students
from the rural reserves are obligated to incur living expenses in order to
further their schooling. This financial burden, King said, often results in
fewer Natives attending a post-secondary institution.

"Our people are struggling to get a higher education and with the limited
budget kids have, what can be done at the AFN level," asked King.

Also requesting financial help from the AFN was Chief Wilmer Noganosh from
the Magnetewan reserve in northern Ontario. Noganosh's band of 200 has
access to stone the provincial Ministry of Natural Resources wants to buy
during and after the expansion of the four-lane highway through his
territory.

The problem is Magnetewan doesn't have the capital to obtain a stone
crusher, equipment that would be the impetus to creating employment.

"[The AFN] should help the small bands to be self-sufficient because the
populations aren't that large and we'd have a lot of potential," said
Noganosh.

With demands that it act as a lobbying group to the challenges as a
protectorate of treaties while also potentially acting as a financial
lender, this is the paradox the Assembly of First Nations faces.

"There in itself lies the problem as everyone has the expectation as to
what it [the AFN] means to them but no clear expectation as to what it
means for everyone," Miskokomon said.

However, for Roote, a lot of the problems would dissipate if bands and
First Nations stop their focus on financial issues that have come at the
expense of ceding tradition.

"I'd rather be poor but have my rights and commitments to my ancestors,"
said Roote. "When we go to our happy hunting grounds [to die] we don't take
the money with us."

The Assembly is seeking further public input.