A big debate is getting under way about the future of the Assembly of First Nations.

The result may spark a revolution in Aboriginal government and even reshape Canada’s system of federalism.

The debate is about how to elect the National Chief of the AFN. At present, he is elected by about 630 chiefs representing their First Nations.

Current National Chief Matthew Coon Come campaigned on a promise to let all community members cast a ballot for the AFN leader.

Supporters say this is more democratic and would give the AFN more authority to defend Native interests.

It would force governments to deal with a united Native government that speaks for all First Nations people, rather than 630 separate bands that can be divided and ruled more easily.

But the idea has a lot of critics, including many of the AFN’s local chiefs and regional vice-chiefs. They say Native people don’t know the issues well enough to vote for the National Chief, and that the people trust their chiefs to do the job.

The debate promises to get nasty because the stakes are so huge. Some chiefs are threatening to break up the AFN if the idea goes ahead.

It’s more than just a question of who gets to cast a vote. The debate raises questions that go to the heart of Aboriginal government.

Is the AFN truly representative of grassroots people? Are local First Nations willing to give up some of their authority to a Canada-wide Native government?

What powers would the National Chief have? What about checks on his or her authority?

And what would be the relationship between this new Native government and the Canadian system of federalism?

The debate isn’t new. It goes back to the times of Native leaders like Pontiac and Tecumseh, who argued that Aboriginal peoples had to stand united or they would get picked off by the European invaders one by one. The idea sparked controversy among some Native people back then, too.

But Tecumseh only had to point to the example of the U.S. colonies that banded together to fight the British and achieved sovereignty. “Tecumseh used to say, They can do it — why can’t we do it?”’ said Tony Hall, a professor of Native studies at Lethbridge University in Alberta.

Sources close to Coon Come say one strategy may be to go straight to the people with consultations and a referendum on changing the AFN voting rules.

Community members would be consulted on reforming the AFN, and at the same time asked for input on a new AFN agenda rooted in local issues. Then a referendum would be held on the AFN reforms and new agenda. “At that point, you would have a strong mandate,” said one of Coon Come’s advisors.

The idea is barely at the discussion stage, but some chiefs are already going on the attack.

“We already have a system in place and it has been working,” said Len Tomah, AFN regional vicechief for New Brunswick and PEI. “(The chiefs) know the leadership out there, and they are the ones in tune with that.”

“A powerful, effective voice”

One of the biggest critics so far is Lawrence Paul, chief of the Milbrook First Nation in Nova Scotia.

Paul is also co-chair of the 35-member Atlantic Policy Congress of First Nations Chiefs. The congress recently voted to oppose any changes to the AFN voting rules.

“I don’t think it’s a good idea, myself. People vote for their chief and council, and that chief is usually the spokesman of the people,” he said.

Chief Paul, who admits he voted against Coon Come in last year’s AFN election, said he is afraid of creating a “super-chief” who has “too much power.”

“Why would Matthew want that? What power does he think that would give him? Is he on an ego-trip?” he asked.

Paul predicted that other chiefs won’t agree to change the system. “It would be the break-up of the AFN because the chiefs would not support a National Chief who has that kind of authority. The Atlantic First Nations may split off.”

The First Perspective, a Winnipeg-based Native newspaper, reported this month that Coon Come will bring the issue to chiefs at the next AFN confederacy meeting this spring.

In a speech at the last confederacy meeting in December, Coon Come pointed out that such a voting system worked well when he was Grand Chief of the Quebec Crees.

“Governments knew that the voice of Eenouch was legitimate, representative and true,” Coon Come said.

He said the AFN “is at a crossroads. It can remain a talented, resourceful, but ultimately less-than-powerful policy and resource organization and clearing-house.

“Or, it can become a powerful, effective political voice for the future, an urgent and irresistible voice for a meaningful livelihood and a place in the sun for every First Nation people in this land.”