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Justice (25-42)

Ex-national chief who helped create Assembly of First Nations says organization now ‘in limbo’

February 17, 2023

Del Riley enshrined Indigenous rights in Constitution while rallying chiefs under a new banner

Del Riley, a residential school survivor, former national chief and former chief of Chippewas of the Thames, pictured in 2019. (Del Riley/Facebook)

CBC News: The Assembly of First Nations has lost its way and is now “in limbo,” having over its 40-year history slowly come under the influence of the Liberal Party of Canada, says the former national chief who created it.

Del Riley was the last president of the National Indian Brotherhood, serving one consequential term between 1980 a nd 1982, where he tackled reforms that transformed the brotherhood into today’s AFN. He did it while simultaneously helping entrench Indigenous rights in Canada’s Constitution, jousting daily with then-prime minister Pierre Trudeau and his attorney general, a lawyer from Shawinigan, Que., named Jean Chrétien.

Today, the 79-year-old Riley says the raft of internal struggles facing the AFN — from defamation lawsuits and human resources probes to a forensic audit and political power jockeying — can be traced to the continued influence of the Indian Act. “They’re just operating in a state of total confusion, which means they aren’t going to make much progress,” Riley said. “They’re airing their dirty laundry, and all that does is make them look tremendously weaker. They have that appearance to us out here.”

Riley, of Chippewas of the Thames near London, Ont., is a survivor. He spent his early years in a tuberculosis sanatorium before Mounties hauled him off to the Mohawk Institute residential school near Brantford, Ont. Riley was elected National Indian Brotherhood president in 1980, succeeding Noel Starblanket of Saskatchewan who laid the groundwork for Riley, landing the new president right in the middle of the fierce, ongoing constitutional fight.

Del Riley, newly elected head of the National Indian Brotherhood, says Indigenous people have more right to participate in constitutional talks than the provinces.

Described as a hardliner on the issue, Riley took $200,000 from the brotherhood’s federal grant money in November 1980 and established a permanent ambassadorial office in London to urge British politicians to oppose patriation of the Constitution. Back in Canada a month later, the brotherhood hosted an all-chiefs conference in Ottawa — the second of three that sparked the eventual creation of the AFN.

Over the next year, Trudeau and Chrétien relented. Indigenous and treaty rights were enshrined in the Constitution. And in April 1982, at another all-chiefs conference in Penticton, B.C., the chiefs in assembly formally created the AFN.

David Ahenakew of Saskatchewan became the first modern national chief, spoiling Riley’s bid for re-election. Riley was optimistic the new Constitution and new organization would spark change, but, looking back, he said neither had the hoped-for effect. “The other problem AFN has is it’s really an organization of Indian Act chiefs and councils, controlled totally by the minister,” he said.

“When I put Section 35 in the Constitution, I put it in to protect the traditional chiefs and that First Nations authority.”

A man speaks with reporters.
Del Riley, of Chippewas of the Thames First Nation in southern Ontario, addresses reporters after being elected president of the National Indian Brotherhood on Aug. 13, 1980. (CBC)

He imagined enshrining Indigenous rights in the highest law of the land would ensure traditional governance systems and the democratic power of First Nations people would triumph over the Indian Act, but he said the old legislation still looms large. “Today, we still sit at the bottom of the social ladder here without any real hope for the future — unless our people can learn what the real truth is and revive their real strength, which comes from each individual on that First Nation, and not from their Indian Act chief and council,” he said.

“That’s where the authority lay.”

AFN not ‘much of a player’ anymore: professor

Today’s AFN today is hard-pressed on several fronts, with a rare emergency chiefs assembly to address a backlog of issues slated for this spring. National Chief RoseAnne Archibald, the first woman to win the job, faces lawsuits and misconduct complaints that threaten to derail her reform-oriented agenda, which includes changing the AFN’s legal name — still the National Indian Brotherhood Corp. — ridding it of the old organization’s last remnant.

Veldon Coburn, a political scientist at the University of Ottawa and member of Algonquins of Pikwàkanagàn, says the Riley- and Starblanket-era days of high-risk political brinkmanship are now just memories. He said the last two decades saw the rise of “milquetoast politicians” at the AFN — leaders who hesitate to criticize and leap at the chance for photo-ops, but avoid politically tense issues of sovereignty and nationhood. “Anything like you might have seen in the 1980s has long since passed, and it doesn’t seem much of a player in national politics in Canada,” he said.

Veldon Coburn is an assistant professor at the University of Ottawa in the Institute of Indigenous Research and Studies. (Mike O’Shaughnessy/CBC)

Coburn points to national chief Ovide Mercredi’s 1996 burning of prime minister Chrétien’s Liberal election platform document, known as the red book, as a moment things changed.  “See how easy it burns,” Mercredi quipped as he held the flaming pages.

It was a symbolic act of resistance, Coburn said, but it didn’t go unpunished. Ron Irwin, Chrétien’s minister of Indian Affairs, fought back.

Onlookers watch as a kneeling man holds burning pieces of paper.
Ovide Mercredi of the Assembly of First Nations burns a copy of the Liberal red book containing the Chrétien government’s election pledges to protest his government’s broken promises in Ottawa on Oct. 26, 1996. (Dave Chan/AFP via Getty Images)

Irwin headed for Manitoba, Mercredi’s home province and power base, to meet with an up-and-coming Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs boss named Phil Fontaine. Fontaine ousted Mercredi in the 1997 national chief election, and later served two consecutive terms between 2003 and 2009. His critics branded him too cozy with the Liberals, but Fontaine won on a platform of results-focused pragmatism.

That’s the approach from which Coburn said the two last national chiefs, Shawn Atleo of B.C. and Perry Bellegarde of Saskatchewan, didn’t deviate.

‘Go back to the roots’

Kanahus Manuel, a Ktunaxa and Secwepemc activist with the Tiny House Warriors based near Blue River, B.C., comes from a family with a long history of involvement with the organization. Her grandfather George Manuel was the brotherhood’s second president. Her father Arthur Manuel and uncle Bobby Manuel led protests against the constitutional patriation. She said the chiefs were more grassroots then, but today she sees leaders wary of criticizing government policy for fear of “getting the federal strings cut.” As a result, she said people question what the AFN is up to.

Kanahus Manuel, a leader of the Tiny House Warriors, speaks to media prior to a demonstration against the Trans Mountain pipeline in Victoria, B.C., in 2019. (Dirk Meissner/The Canadian Press)

“We’ve got to remember and go back to the roots of that organization,” she said. “The only way that we’re going to have a voice is not through the AFN. It’s through national mobilization, going international to expose the continued human rights violations.”

Coburn said one way to do that is to continue the reforms Starblanket and Riley undertook and further democratize the AFN so regular people can vote for the national chief, instead of only member chiefs. And if they want advice from an elder statesman, Riley said he’s a phone call away.


Brett Forester, Reporter

Brett Forester is a reporter with CBC Indigenous in Ottawa. He is a member of the Chippewas of Kettle and Stony Point First Nation in southern Ontario who previously worked as a journalist with the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network.