Yesterday, as I watched the decisive re-election of Shawn Atleo as the National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, my thoughts couldn’t help but turn to the perennial question hanging over the AFN: as an organization funded so heavily from the coffers of the Canadian government, just how independent a voice is it, anyway?
The question is a fair one. As the old adage goes, when you bite the hand that feeds you, the hand’s owner seldom likes it. Some argue we only need to see what happened to one-term National Chief Matthew Coon Come for evidence of that at work in Indian country. Among other battles he waged against the Canadian government, Coon Come helped lead the charge in 2000 against proposed reforms to the Indian Act, under what came to be known as the First Nations Governance Act. The Indian Affairs minister at the time, Liberal MP Robert Nault, was none too pleased with the Assembly’s opposition. Cuts to AFN’s funding followed not long after, and its annual disbursement from Indian Affairs dropped in one year from $19.8 million down to $12 million, a cut of just under 40% (by 2003, Coon Come’s last year in office, that figure was further reduced to $6 million). Today, some observers look back at this budgetary collapse as a clear cut case of an AFN leader being “punished” by the feds for attempting “to steer a more radical course.”
Now, however accurate or appropriate this characterization may or may not be — National Chiefs seem to be routinely positioned by pundits as occupying one of two polarized ends of the conciliatory/confrontational continuum — it does highlight one inescapable truth: financially speaking, the AFN has next-to-no control over its own destiny. And that is never a recipe for independence. As a 2003 Windspeaker editorial put it, “the AFN is funded by government and indirectly controlled by government and is not yet a true First Nation institution.”
Nine years after those words were written, not much has changed in that regard; the Assembly effectively remains monetarily beholden to the Canadian government. Something else that hasn’t changed over that time are criticisms about how AFN is structured. Critics decry how only Chiefs can vote for the National Chief. They call for a national grassroots alternative where all First Nations people can vote for their leader.
And yet, as a recent First Perspective editorial asked,
[If] so many people out there — people who are educated, who are capable, are saying this on Facebook — are disenchanted with the status quo, [why] hasn’t this sentiment coalesced into a grassroots organization to replace the AFN as a genuine political movement?
Here too, the question is a fair one. But, in the era of crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter, it may no longer be an impractical one.
Allow me to explain. While the magical series of tubes known as the internet may suffer from occasional bouts of hype, its ever-evolving capacity to coordinate millions upon millions of bits and bytes at the speed of light has now made many things possible in 2012 that were simply unimaginable even three years ago (coincidentally, the first time Atleo was elected). Not the least of these is crowdfunding. With the click of a button (indeed, many clicks of many buttons), individuals can now effectively amass a significant sum of money towards the cause of their choice, each of them submitting one or two dollars at a time through an automated on-line intermediary. Watch that happen a million times and — poof! — you ‘suddenly’ see one or two million dollars aggregate. Google <crowdfunding success stories> if you’re still dubious about how it can happen.
As the late Johnny Carson would say (ask your parents), this is wild and wacky stuff. And if you believe as I do that a single dollar without strings attached is worth $10 or even $100 of government-controlled funding, it won’t take long for you to see the technological potential here for funding the creation and on-going operation of a truly independent Indigenous political voice, one free of the kind of outside meddling we’ve seen exercised to date.
Could that voice be the AFN itself? It’s entirely possible. The grassroots, distributed model of funding I’ve described is open to any organization that sees merit in it. Whether that might include the Assembly is, as they say, an open question.
Allow me to end these admittedly back-of-napkin musings with this final thought: First Nations folk, maybe it’s time to put your toonies where your tongue is.