The Assembly of First Nations rejected the federal government’s much-ballyhooed “governance initiative” aimed at reforming the Indian Act during a national meeting of chiefs in Vancouver last week.

An AFN resolution “strongly objected” to Minister Robert Nault’s “unilateral action… in holding consultations and drafting a Governance Act under the direction and control of the Department of Indian Affairs.”

The resolution passed with no opposition – though there were 10 abstentions. It reserves the right for First Nations to create

their own laws based on traditional customs. And it encouraged all First Nations organizations and individuals to boycott the federal consultation process while carrying out a public-awareness campaign on the threat to treaty rights and self-government that it poses.

Nault launched the initiative April 30 at a school auditorium at Siksika First Nation in Alberta, telling several hundred Siksika students that the Indian Act must be overhauled – before they themselves become elders.

“The Act has to be updated – by communities, for communities – so people have the necessary tools to meet their needs… and move towards self-government,” Nault said. “I hope that the consultations will develop a bridge for those First Nations, an interim step to self-government. By laying the foundation for self-government, it will give band governments the tools they need to overcome social and economic challenges and improve living conditions on reserve.”

The public-relations ploy of Nault talking to the hopeful faces of the next generation played well on television, as it was obviously intended to.

But far more skeptical faces of First Nations leaders were in evidence in North Vancouver last week as Nault’s initiative fell flat. Chiefs were given four choices: participate, participate with conditions, don’t participate or come up with their own process and urge the federal government to participate. They chose the latter.

AFN National Chief Matthew Coon Come’s beef is that the focus is not on respecting existing treaty rights and creating new ones where First Nations have never formally ceded their territory. Rather, as the DIAND website says, “the focus is on broad governance issues such as Band elections, government structures and governance including both political and fiscal accountability.” That, Coon Come says, implies the problem is with the Indian rather than the system that has dominated him or her for more than a century.

Still, some chiefs think the opening is an opportunity they shouldn’t pass up.

“I am not one bit afraid of this process,” said Ted Quewezance, chief of the Keeseekoose First Nation in Saskatchewan. “[Ottawa] is going to do this with or without us.”

Nonetheless, the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations recommended a boycott of the talks, as did the powerful Chiefs of Ontario grouping.

They wonder why the minister is in now in such a rush to overhaul the Act – the deadline is November – and note that more than a century of paternalistic government cannot be undone in six months.

As Coon Come said in a speech the day after Nault’s announcement, there is suspicion that Indian Act amendments would be less about self-government than increasing First Nations’ accountability to the federal government – even as the feds reduce their obligations and responsibilities to First Nations.

“The subject matter on the table for discussion does not reflect the First Nations’ vision or understanding of Governance,” said Coon Come. “The Minister continues to use the terms ‘band governance’ and ‘band members’ rather than First Nations ‘governments’

and First Nations ‘citizens,’ which continues to reflect his colonial mentality.”