The Assembly of First Nations (AFN) received word on June 3 that the federal government would cut its operating budget– yet again – this time by 30%.

There had long been speculation by many people working in Aboriginal advocacy that the Conservative government would likely slash the AFN’s funding in the way that other advocacy organizations had been cut. In September of last year, the Department of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development announced in a news release that the 2012 Budget contained cuts to the AFN’s program funding, as well as cuts to its core funding, which had already been announced.

According to AFN CEO Peter Dinsdale, “We were expecting some reductions, but more in the 5 to 10% range – certainly not the 30% range it came in at.”

There was an immediate outcry across social media, with many accusing the Harper government of deliberately attacking Aboriginal organizations. But Dinsdale didn’t see the cuts quite that way, noting that advocacy organizations across political spectrums are also being cut. He did underline, however, that the choice to cut political organizations instead of cutting Aboriginal Affairs bureaucracy sends a certain message.

“It may be seen as being more motivated to handcuff political organizations as opposed to [reducing] the bureaucracy. I think there’s probably a balance there that becomes questionable,” he said.

Dinsdale agreed that the cuts continue what he described as a legislative agenda hostile to Aboriginal organizations. Laws tabled by the Conservative government have included the controversial Omnibus Budget Bills C-38 and C-45, which many saw as threatening to Aboriginal rights and sovereignty, and which sparked the Idle No More protest movement.

However, Dinsdale said the federal government’s attitude to Aboriginal groups and issues is multifaceted.

“It’s peculiar,” he said, “because the other side of that coin is their willingness to engage in the Crown-First Nations gathering and other high-level talks aimed at resetting the relationship, which would seem to be a positive move. So as always, the relationship with the federal government is tricky.”

The depth of the cuts, Dinsdale said, will result in reduced policy staff and a capacity to engage in direct advocacy activities, such as organizing meetings, writing and publishing reports, and pushing for a broader impact on the government’s policy decisions.

“We’re trying to work with federal government in terms of treaty implementation and comprehensive claim reform, education reform, the need to deal with murdered and missing Aboriginal women – as tangible examples,” he said. “That is predicated on the ability to have staff, to pull together groups of chiefs to have discussions and come to the Hill to advocate. All of these are the kinds of things that are impacted by the funding cuts – the basic capacity and ability to do what advocacy is.”

The AFN cuts come halfway into a year that began with Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence on hunger strike, countrywide actions by Idle No More groups, and the January 11 meeting between Stephen Harper and National Chief Shawn A-in-chut Atleo and other chiefs. Dinsdale said that the rapport between Aboriginal groups and the federal government was already volatile and that news of the cuts won’t encourage a greater harmony.

“I think it’s leading into a summer where we anticipate more vocal activity from Idle No More and the grassroots,” he said.

Part of the problem for the AFN, he explained, was the position taken by National Chief Atleo, when news of budget reductions first arose, to refuse cuts to individual First Nations.

“It seems like that spirit has been retained,” he said. “But now cuts are coming on the backs of advocacy organizations like the AFN – and, we understand, 45 other organizations received similar reductions. It’s not just us. It seems to be more of an across-the-board approach, and I think the long-term impacts of that are going to be extremely detrimental and are not going to be fully known until they’ve been in place.”

For some time, activists like Cindy Blackstock have warned First Nations advocacy organizations that a government hostile to their interests could easily starve them by stripping their funding. Blackstock is executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society, which had its funding cut by 100% in 2008, after it filed a complaint with the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal alleging discrimination in child welfare funding for Aboriginal children. She argues that Aboriginal organizations must find the means to fund themselves if the federal government begins treating them as enemies of the state.

Dinsdale agreed that financial independence from the federal government would be a positive development, but cautioned that it wouldn’t be easy to achieve.

“We certainly see it as an important thing for us to strive towards,” he said. “But I have to tell you there are not a lot of obvious high-valued revenue sources there simply for the taking. We charge fees for people to attend our chiefs assemblies, we hold golf tournaments, and we do all kinds of other social-enterprise-type activities around the margins of our work to raise funds, but it’s simply not enough to keep up with the nature of the changing policy environment.”

For the AFN to continually adapt to the demands placed on them would require significantly greater resources than the AFN currently has available through non-traditional funding channels, Dinsdale said.

“The challenge for us, as with any non-profit in this environment, is to find ways to leverage our activities into potentially profit-generating activities,” he observed. “We do not pretend to be business experts. We aren’t hired here to increase shareholder value or to find profit margins in any revenue streams that we have. These are the types of things that we’re going to have to become more and more engaged in. But I’m not optimistic that we have the kind of existing expertise – nor frankly even the mandate – to do these things.”

The mandate for the AFN, underlined Dinsdale, is to respond to chiefs and the assembly and advocate on their behalf.

“As a non-profit with these extremely challenging financial pressures, we have to figure out how to do more with less. It’s not in our DNA to be Fortune-500 companies. We’ll leave that to the businesspeople. But I’d anticipate that this is the kind of direction that governments would like to see us going. I’m not sure if we have the proper tools yet to respond to that.”

Though the cuts will make the AFN more difficult to run, Dinsdale stressed that they will leave the organization in a very different state than many local Aboriginal governments.

“I don’t want to speak for them, but I know that the challenges that we face pale by comparison to the challenges that local First Nation chiefs face every single day trying to house people in their communities and provide clean drinking water and the most basic sanitation services that most Canadians take for granted,” he emphasized.

“I think it becomes difficult for us to compare our needs. We will survive, we will be creative, and ultimately we’ll become stronger as a result of this. We’re less encumbered and controlled by the federal government and more able to fully articulate the demands that we have. Cuts like this make our job more difficult, but make us more determined than ever to make sure we find ways forward.”