As it wrapped up its annual three-day gathering in Halifax July 17, the Assembly of First Nations was leaderless, divided and facing an uncertain future. As one chief commented, it is like sailing in a “rudderless ship.”

Former AFN Chief Sean Atleo

Former AFN Chief Shawn Atleo

At the centre of the organization’s problems is how to deal with a crafty carrot-and-stick strategy by the Conservative government to essentially bribe Canada’s First Nations into accepting a paternalistic, one-size-fits-all education system.

Controversy over support for Bill C-33, the First Nations Education Act, led to former National Chief Shawn Atleo’s resignation this spring. The promise of $1.9 billion in extra education funding is urgently needed. But with it comes tighter government control over a diverse and dispersed group of First Nations across the country. And the stick of domination by a government intent on destroying Native political power was too large for many chiefs to accept.

But the cookie-cutter approach to a starved education system in Native communities is part of a broader problem facing the AFN. Just as the educational needs of children in Haida Gwai differ from those in Kanesetake or Whapmagoostui, it is just as difficult to reconcile the political representation of 600 or so diverse nations into a unified body.

That’s why some chiefs in Halifax were calling for a new AFN charter, saying none of the major issues facing First Nations could be resolved until the Assembly itself is reformed. As Serpent River First Nation Chief Isadore Day wondered, “Are we going to have the time to make all the necessary changes to have a functioning machine?”

As it stands, the AFN works more as a lobbying representative of 600 chiefs in Ottawa. More political weight and legitimacy would accrue if it deepened the way its leaders are chosen. One-member-one-vote may be too unwieldy, but if member nations elected delegates to AFN leadership and policy conventions, the average Aboriginal in Canada may feel he or she had more of a stake in the organization.

A leadership convention will take place in Winnipeg this December. Quebec Regional AFN Chief Ghislain Picard, who was named interim AFN leader in Halifax, is mulling a run. The journalist and educator Wab Kinew is seriously considering a bid as well. As is a former leadership candidate from 2009, the Saskatchewan regional chief Perry Bellegarde.

All are credible candidates. But will they have the power to stand up to Stephen Harper, who makes it clear he only sees First Nations as obstacles to the oil, mining and forestry industries that are far closer to his priorities? That remains to be seen.

The recent Supreme Court decision to award title over a 1700-square-kilometre territory to the Tsilhqot’in Nation in BC is a major victory that demonstrates that the federal and provincial governments must continue to negotiate with First Nations over land-use issues.

This is usually done on a local or regional basis. But the AFN has an important role to play in intervening with the federal government in Ottawa and by addressing public opinion through its access to the national media.

The former national chief was weak in this regard, seen by many as too conciliatory to a voracious government. He was also slow to catch the wave of activism and sense of revolt among the grassroots, as evidenced by the Idle No More movement.

And finally, when negotiating with the government over something as major as an all-encompassing education act, a leader must know where his or her members stand. Atleo obviously did not, and that hubris was his undoing. The next national chief must do better.