Indian Affairs Minister Robert Nault called the Assembly of First Nations ineffective and irrelevant last week, an attack that comes less than a month before the organization chooses a leader.

“The AFN is structurally incapable of working with the government, at least the way it’s organized now,” Nault said at a meeting of the Saskatoon StarPhoenix editorial board.

The comments drew a quick response from AFN National Chief Matthew Coon Come. In a statement, he said Nault’s words are surprising not only because of their disrespectful and dismissive nature towards a representative organization but because they fly in the face of his statements in a letter sent to the AFN on June 18, in which he acknowledges “…our (the federal government’s) belief in the positive contributions the AFN has made in Aboriginal affairs.”

When questioning the AFN’s structural capability, Coon Come added, Nault neglects the fact that the Assembly of First Nations is essentially organized in accordance with federal law, the Indian Act, which recognizes bands led by Chiefs.

“If he sees the structure as outdated or ineffectual,” said Coon Come, “then the Minister must realize that the structure is, in part at least, a reflection of a failure of federal law and policy to recognize that First Nations were traditionally organized as nations or as signatories to Treaties with the Crown.”

And Coon Come wonders whether it is impossible for government to work with the Assembly and individual First Nations, or is it impossible for this specific minister? The Minister says, “My advice to the AFN and the leadership is to send somebody we can work with around the table …”. The Minister is speaking with forked tongue. By letter (June 18th) the Minister stated, “It remains our position to not become ‘involved in political activities, surrounding the AFN leadership race. The position of INAC and our government is clear in respect of the role of the Assembly of First Nations: we want to work with the AFN, in partnership with its leadership. We seek to do so in the spirit of cooperation and collaboration as the preferred mode of operation.” The Minister’s mandate is to administer the Indian Act and Indian Affairs, but does not include interfering in the internal and leadership business of the AFN.