Two symbols stand in stark contrast to each other the moment one enters the Special Chiefs Assembly of the Assembly of First Nations in Ottawa. The first symbol is a plains teepee – empty, mute and majestic. It’s also completely out of place in this building, which is the other significant symbol. The building is the Ottawa Congress Centre that is attached to the ritzy Westin Hotel where most of the AFN’s chiefs and quite a few observers have rooms.


The teepee is a symbol of traditional values and past struggles for human dignity and basic human rights. On the other hand, the Congress Centre is a monument to forces that have traditionally dispossessed and oppressed Indigenous peoples in Canada: big business, big money and big government. The two symbols stand in sharp contrast to each other and capture the underlying meaning of a story that dominates recent headlines.


The story of Attawapiskat eclipses almost everything else including anything about the AFN’s annual year-end conference. Just about every headline of every Canadian daily newspaper and broadcast news program is about Attawapiskat. Freezing temperatures, sick children and hundreds of people crammed into overcrowded trailers, mould-contaminated homes and even tents. This story crashes into the Canadian conscience, presented not only as a human crisis taking place in a northern community but as a moral crisis and failure of the federal government.


One question surfaces in most stories and editorials: Why? Why do Canadians allow anybody to endure such terrible living conditions for so long? Why did it take so long for the government and the news media to wake up? Why are similar terrible living conditions typical of too many northern reserves? Why do these stories always sneak up on southern society, generate demands that government finally do something? Why do living conditions in these northern communities never seem to improve?


Chief Teresa Spence declared a state of emergency as sub-freezing temperatures settled over the community in mid-November. Not long after, NDP MP Charlie Angus uploaded a series of videos to YouTube bringing the despicable living conditions that Cree families endured in Attawapiskat to global audiences. The story went viral on the Internet. The media reaction in Canada, though, was modest at first. It was just another story about terrible living conditions in yet another impoverished, remote, northern Cree community.


The story jumped up a notch thanks to a decision by Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan to impose third-party management without prior notice to or discussion with Chief Spence and her council. In fact, the November 30 letter from Duncan shocked the chief and council as they met in emergency sessions to find safe accommodations for people living in tents and unsafe homes. Chief Spence, and mainstream journalists, recognized a ministerial gag order when they saw one.


Chief Spence upon receiving the notification was incensed by actions of Aboriginal Affairs Canada, not only by interrupting a meeting of the community’s emergency team, but also by the cited reasons for the imposition of an Indian Agent. Chief Spence expressed surprise that after over a month of inaction, the Harper government has elected to blame the poorest of Canadian society rather than to offer assistance.


All of a sudden, reporters had a David & Goliath story. News crews jammed onto airplanes heading to the coast of James Bay. Most journalists hoping to jump on the story, however, were stuck thanks to the high cost of northern travel. The timing of the AFN conference in Ottawa couldn’t have been better though. If media interest held until the AFN meeting began in early December, then Chief Spence and other northern chiefs would be at the media’s beck and call.


The AFN’s annual conference doesn’t usually attract a lot of attention from mainstream reporters. If pressed, a few might admit they drop by out of a sense of duty. In fact, the AFN meeting doesn’t attract a lot of chiefs either. Attendance has been slipping for years. In the past, some northern chiefs said they took the opportunity of the AFN meeting to gift shop for the holidays.


“It’s not unusual. I’ve seen resolutions passed by less than 20 chiefs in the meeting,” said Russell Diabo, editor of First Nations Strategic Bulletin. The AFN says it represents more than 600 band councils or First Nations. The AFN is in fact an organization of chiefs.


The questions put to Diabo were about quorum: How many chiefs must be at this AFN meeting to make it and its resolutions legal? “That’s easy,” he said. “50% plus one.”


Asked to explain what that meant, Diabo said that due to declining attendance of chiefs at the annual Special Chiefs Assembly, the AFN decided to change the rules.


“This isn’t what used to be called a Confederacy meeting or the AGA (annual general assembly). At those types of meetings, the rule is that a certain number of chiefs and proxies – of all the 633 chiefs within the AFN – had to attend or the AFN didn’t have quorum.”


But given the time of year and fewer chiefs showing up for the end-of-year meeting, more memorable for its annual Christmas party, the AFN changed the rules on quorum.


“Now, quorum for the Special Chiefs Assembly is achieved when there’s at least 60% of the total number of chiefs and proxies registered at the conference – not the total of chiefs across the country,” Diabo continued. “So it’s 60% of whoever is here. The organizers do a head count on the morning of the first day of the conference. Once they count 60% of the chiefs registered at this meeting, they proclaim quorum.”


Diabo said a head count doesn’t happen every morning nor is it needed. “Any chief or proxy may raise a question and ask for a count, but that never happens. At least, not that I know of.”


The conference registration desk provided attendance figures of 192 chiefs and proxies with 887 total for people registered. Asked for a breakdown by province, registration-desk workers said they hadn’t done that yet. Nor did they identify the registered participants by categories, such as government, non-governmental organization, labour, religious organization, media or business.


Bernard Hervieux is the executive director and senior journalist with SOCAM, the radio network that links Innu and Attikamekw communities in northern Quebec. He’s been asking questions about attendance and quorum at the conference. “I don’t see many chiefs here,” he said. “I thought there would be a lot more.” Looking around, he notices a number of journalists milling about, looking for someone to interview.


Asked what he thinks the conference is about, he says one word: Attawapiskat.

That’s a problem. Reporters arrived in abundance to the AFN conference but they had eyes for only one story – Attawapiskat.


The AFN has a report and updates on various programs dealing with Indian Residential Schools programs, including an explanation of the way survivors’ claims are recognized, assessed and dealt with; how problems with legal representation are being dealt with; and why so many survivors are excluded by the Independent Assessment Process (IAP). One of the co-chairs of the Truth and Reconciliation (TRC), Marie Wilson, is there to explain how the TRC’s mandate fits in with these and other programs. But there are no mainstream journalists in the audience and the seats are half-filled, mostly by survivors.


Similarly across the hall, a report on education takes place in a much larger room. The report explains the effect on communities by federal funding policies that under-fund on-reserve schools, almost forcing students to attend non-Aboriginal schools off-reserve. The term “partnerships” is tossed around but participants call it a euphemism for “downloading federal responsibility for Indian education to the provinces”.


Again, there isn’t a single mainstream reporter present to explain to a larger Canadian audience why another priority of the federal government is failing First Nations. But then again, about one in every four seats is occupied. So it goes, from workshop to workshop.


AFN documents describe the theme of this meeting as Realizing Our Rights: Unlocking Our Economies. Clearly, the AFN ties the second part of that theme – developing First Nation economies – to the first – realizing rights. So it’s no surprise that the highlight of the past year’s accomplishments is a trip to China by National Chief Shawn A-in-chut Atleo and various chiefs to drum up trade between that country and First Nations in Canada.


How much trade are they talking about? What does this mean for what types of products or industries? Who will benefit from this trade agreement? How many jobs or training positions are planned or will be created? Details and facts are missing in the documents and presentations in favour of vague statements about progress.


Top of the agenda, however, is the announcement in November that Prime Minister Stephen Harper has agreed to a meeting on First Nation-Crown relations on January 24, 2012. The AFN sent out a backgrounder about what it expects to take place at this meeting.


The gathering will be aimed at strengthening the Crown-First Nations relationship and unlocking the full potential of First Nations driven change for progress recognizing and respecting mutual responsibilities and accountability.


“It is more and more evident to everyone that we need action to deal with the long-standing problems facing First Nations and Canada,” Atleo said. “We have communities in crisis that need action now, but we must stop lurching from crisis to crisis. This requires action and commitment to address systemic problems, and it requires that we work together. It is time to reset the relationship to the one formed at the time of treaty – based on partnership and respect.”


But the AFN chiefs don’t appear to have a lot of trust in Harper or his government. They say $6 billion needs to be spent to bring on-reserve housing up to code. A third of reserves endure never-ending boil water alerts. And on and on at the same time that federal directives are sent to all government departments, including Health and Aboriginal Affairs, to identify where they will can cut spending by 10%. Then they see a virtual gag order slapped on Chief Spence after she tried to wake a comatose Aboriginal Affairs Minister to a crisis situation with lives at stake.


They’re wary of words like “partnership” and don’t see much of a relationship of mutual respect coming down from Ottawa. Patrick Madahbee, Grand Council Chief of the Anishinabek Nation, said they’d like to see one though. “Maybe it’s time they tried something different. Maybe we need a whole new perspective on [Parliament] Hill. The worn-out, tired politics of Canada isn’t cutting it anymore.”


Governments, however, react to public pressure – pressure by the voters who elect them – and powerful corporations that contribute money to their party. People on First Nations don’t vote in numbers to make a difference. They don’t have the economic clout it takes to impress governments to change their policies. So First Nations must appeal to the Canadian voter, the average Canadian citizen.


This means they need to educate the average Canadian citizen who is often just as tired of the never-changing living conditions on many First Nations. They are often just as anxious to see real improvements as much as First Nations. But there’s a disconnect between the need to confront one crisis after another, both at the band and the national Indian level.


As you can tell, this is the story that eclipsed the AFN and almost everything the national status Indian organization might have accomplished, showing up in news reports and editorials. This emergency measure, combined with YouTube videos of the living conditions posted by Charlie Angus, generated international attention and condemnation, an airlift of reporters looking scandal, and a disaster relief effort by the Canadian Red Cross.

Comments by Duncan that he and his department didn’t know about a situation that has been getting worse every year for decades. Harper implies financial mismanagement, and Attawapiskat itself, is to blame despite 10 years of co-management by Duncan’s department. Duncan imposes third-party management, condemned by Chief Spence as nothing more than an attempt to gag the band council and deflect responsibility.


One thing is evident. No matter which issue was discussed at the AFN conference, Canada has consistently fallen far short of the goals it has set for itself in dealing with First Nations. From a promise that bad water would soon be a thing of the past, to equal opportunities and a desire to fulfill fiduciary obligations, one is reminded the teepee is still empty but the symbols of Canada’s oppression and dispassion shine brightly on. We may understand what has led to these problems, but Canada has a long way to go to solving and preventing them.


It isn’t only Canada’s problem though. The AFN has a credibility problem it must address as well. It has slowly become a mirror image of the Aboriginal Affairs department. Subtle messages over the years have left the chiefs – in an organization of chiefs – with the impression that their voice is not that important anymore. This and other factors – such as increasingly tight budgets back home, and the high cost of travel to and from AFN meetings in Ottawa – have been likely leading to a steady decline in the chiefs’ attendance. Perhaps if AFN did not spend so much on ritzy venues and expensive hotels, and devoted itself more to supporting communities in severe crisis, the organization might find more people showing up, including more journalists.