I left last week’s Assembly of First Nations National Fisheries Strategy Conference in Halifax in the same mood I left Esgenoopetitj (Burnt Church) last September – tired, frustrated and discouraged.

It’s not that I don’t care about aboriginal and treaty rights. My frustration stems from watching the AFN try to micromanage a complex and volatile situation whose magnitude is beyond its current capabilities.

The micromanagement began again last Monday when the AFN communications staff barred all members of the media from most of the conference. At first, we were told we could hang around the conference centre hallways and talk to delegates while they moved between workshop sessions, but we weren’t allowed to attend any plenary sessions or keynote speeches.

After much intense lobbying by a few journalists, that restriction was lifted the next day, but the damage had already been done – the AFN’s message to the media was that we would hear only what the AFN wanted us to hear. This message reminded me of the time I spent volunteering in Esgenoopetitj. During the month of September, most, if not all, of the information released to the media from Esgenoopetitj was handled by the AFN.

The general picture that emerged was that it was working in a full and equal partnership with the people of Esgenoopetitj, including the chief and council. However, as time has passed, this seems to be less and less true.

Rather than assisting the people of Esgenoopetitj, I saw the AFN take over, imposing its agenda without fully consulting the parties on whose behalf it was supposed to be working.

The failed mediation effort headed by former Ontario premier Bob Rae is a good case in point. According to notes ‘ from an AFN legal/strategy session undertaken in mid-September, 2000, an acceptable protocol should have been in place to ensure that both sides had adequate resources and time to prepare for mediation.

Based on what I saw at Esgenoopetitj community headquarters, the AFN pressed for mediation to begin without properly educating the people and leadership of Esgenoopetitj about the process and without providing adequate technical support. During the time I was there, the technical support work -answering telephones, faxing documents, collating documents and arranging community meetings – wasn’t done by AFN staff, but by a handful of volunteers who

had travelled from far and wide to assist in any way they could.

Many times, we told the AFN that we were desperate for trained support staff, but nothing was done – and any criticism of how the AFN was managing the day-to-day activities was either rebuffed as trivial or ignored altogether. As a result, none of the volunteers was certain how to proceed and the attendant anxiety took its toll. Work standards varied widely.

Unfortunately, rather than establishing a lasting structure that could serve the people of Esgenoopetitj once we left, we were forced to make it up as we went along. The result has been disastrous. For example, thousands of dollars donated to Esgenoopetitj from across Canada to assist with legal and equipment costs seems to have gone missing for reasons I don’t understand. One week, I’m told that so-and-so was managing the books; the next week, the blame is shifted once again.

It’s impossible to get any clear answers because I don’t know who speaks for Esgenoopetitj any more. One faction backed by the AFN claims it speaks for the silent majority of Esgenoopetitj, and claims the chief and some councillors are out of touch, while the chief says his leadership is being undermined by the AFN-backed faction. But who speaks for whom is difficult to determine when it appears neither side speaks with the other. In fact, band councillor Irene Dedam says nobody from the AFN communicates directly with her husband, Chief Wilbur Dedam, any more.

Based on this experience alone, I’m reluctant to endorse any further fisheries related actions that are proposed by the AFN, including its new draft strategy statement, which was tabled at the end of last week’s conference. Although the strategy is still in the draft stages, its initial wording makes it seem that the AFN is setting itself up to dominate all working relationships between the Crown and various First Nations governments.

There is, for example, a suggestion that the AFN establish a “rapid response team that can be called upon to assist First Nations with negotiations, mediation and communications.” That sounds exactly like what was attempted in Esgenoopetitj to no avail.

I know that I’ve learned from my experience, but I can’t speak for the AFN.

Alison Blackduck is a Dogrib writer and this commentary appeared in the Toronto Star.