What is the Assembly of First Nations in Canada?

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

How do Canadian First Nations citizens ensure that their political voices are heard? In this lesson, we'll explore this question and look at the history and organization of Canada's Assembly of First Nations.

The Assembly of First Nations

The countries of North America have all had difficult histories with their Amerindian populations. Amerindian groups are considered citizens of the nation, but are also citizens of their own nations, each of which is distinct and different. Wouldn't it be great if we could just form some sort of Amerindian organization to bring all these people together and set an agenda that represents the needs of Amerindian citizens to their federal governments?

Well, somebody in Canada certainly thought this was a good idea. Through political unity, Canada's Amerindian communities (who generally refer to themselves as First Nations) work together to bring their issues into wider Canadian politics. The organization that lets them do this is the Assembly of First Nations, which was established in the early 1980s.

History of the AFN

The Assembly of First Nations (AFN) of Canada is a political assembly composed of representatives from First Nations communities around the country. We'll get into exactly how that works in a minute, but first let's see how this institution came to be.

Canada has a rough history with its First Nations citizens, and like the US, went through periods of attempted forced assimilation and eradication. Although the First Nations communities were diverse and distinct, they started coming together for mutual support. By as early as the 1920s, they had developed political organizations aimed at creating a greater voice for First Nations peoples in Canadian politics.

A big era of change finally began after World War II, as Britain's gradual decolonization of its empire brought the needs of racially oppressed groups into the global spotlight. This extended to places in the British Commonwealth like Canada (and it's worth remembering that a number of First Nations Canadians fought in World War II). The National Indian Brotherhood was founded in 1961 to advance the political rights of First Nations peoples. By the 1970s, First Nations groups were actively advocating for greater self-governance within Canada. Finally, in 1979 hundreds of First Nations Canadians assembled in London to debate the attempted patriation of Canada's constitution.

Regions in brown still predominantly self-identify as First Nations. The goal of the AFN is to ensure all these people have an equal voice in Canadian politics.
ethnic map of Canada

Fueled by the massive turnout and cooperation between First Nations leaders in London, hundreds of chiefs agreed to meet again the following year in Ottawa. There, they drafted the 1980 ''Declaration of First Nations'', a document outlining a single First Nations assembly that would promote a unified political voice for First Nations citizens in Canada. The chiefs who signed the declaration agreed that they would create a new organization that they would all recognize as the exclusive body for First Nations issues. The new organization was directly modeled on the United Nations (although we also cannot ignore the deep history of inter-First Nations alliances that spans centuries). In 1982, the National Indian Brotherhood fulfilled the agenda of that manifesto and formally inaugurated the Assembly of First Nations.

Organization and Role in Canadian Politics

The AFN has been active since 1982, providing a political voice for First Nations citizens of Canada. So, how exactly does it work? The assembly meets once every year to coordinate the efforts of the more than 600 First Nations of Canada. They set agendas, outline priorities, allocate resources, and direct the overall mission of providing a political voice for the roughly 900,000 First Nations citizens of Canada. Their efforts provide support for education, political campaigning, policy analysis, advocacy, and increased communication between First Nations citizens, AFN representatives, and members of the Canadian and British governments. The AFN also directly oversees the lobbying of Canadian government officials to ensure that First Nations voices are considered in legislative and executive decisions.

Like the United Nations, the AFN is composed largely of elected representatives. At the very top is the National Chief, the leader of the assembly, who is elected every three years by the chiefs of First Nations represented in the AFN. The National Chief is assisted by an executive board comprised of ten regional chiefs, elected every three years by the chiefs of the region each represents.

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