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The First Nations Assembly

SASKATCHEWAN INDIAN      MAY 1982      v12 n04 p26  
The First Nations Assembly Delegates After two years of assemblies and meetings, the Chiefs in Canada have formed their Assembly of First Nations. For the first time in history, control at the national level rests in the hands of the Chiefs. And for the first time in history the national leaders have been elected directly by Chiefs. The decision to go with a new structure was not lightly taken. The Assembly of First Nations held in Penticton April 20, 21, and 22 was attended by over 385 of the 576 Chiefs in Canada. Numerous observers, provincial and territorial organization executive and staff, elder statesmen and young people attended the meeting and swelled the numbers of people in the meeting room to an estimated 2,000 to 2500 people. Penticton locals said it was the largest convention ever held in their town.

From the beginning of the conference, it was obvious that the Chiefs want to get down to business. After the initial speakers and some procedural wrangles, the agenda was thrown out and a motion was passed identifying three major areas for discussion: organizational structure, nominations and elections, and the policy and mandate of elected officers.


According to the proposed structure outlined in the conference kits, the first body of the new national structure is comprised of the Assembly of First Nations and the aboriginal people. The Chiefs or headmen make up the Assembly and the assembly meets annually. But just who are the aboriginal people led to intense debate on the floor. Dene Nation spokesman Herb Norwegian gave the Dene position on Dene citizenship which is that Dene are those people who are recognized as being Dene. He said there were two Metis Chiefs in the Dene Nation but they were recognized as citizens and so enjoyed all the rights of other Dene. Charles Wood Interum chairman of the Joints Council of the National Indian Brotherhood stated that the Assembly had to mandate to address the question of non-status and Metis. Patrick Mahdabee of Ontario said the question of membership was dealt with in the Treaty and Aboriginal Rights Principles which have been agreed to as the national position of the First Nations. Included in those principles is agreement on the right to define their own citizenship. Ray Jones of B.C. urged the Assembly not to get caught up in the definition of every concept put forward in the restructure. He said there would be lots of time to spell out more fully the terms of the Assembly. Chief Wellington Staats of the 6 Nations Confederacy in Ontario said the concept of the Assembly of First Nations went beyond provincial and territorial concerns to the good of all Indian Nations. He said decisions should be made on the basis of what is good for national policy.

Herb Norwegian also requested that the Yukon and the Dene Nation be given a separate region so that they could elect their own vice-president. Originally there were 4 proposed vice-presidents elected by the four regions. Yukon, Dene and B.C. were together as a region, the Prairie provinces as another, then Ontario, and Quebec and the Maritimes as the fourth region.

Membership by Provincial and territorial organization in the national structure came under fire at the

The First Nations Assembly

SASKATCHEWAN INDIAN      MAY 1982      v12 n04 p27  
assembly and a motion was passed excluding provincial and territorial level organizations from membership in the Assembly of First Nations; the Joint Council, however, will continue to function under the direction of the confederacy. By the end of the first day of the assembly, motions were passed to allow the Dene and the Yukon their own vice president and the organizational structure of the Assembly of First Nations was adopted in principle.

The morning of the second day of the Assembly a motion was made to set the restructure aside and get on with elections. The motion was defeated easily and the Assembly continued on the restructure but faster than the day before. Election fever was in the air and a new structure had to be agreed upon or the assembly would be in the curious position of electing an executive for a non-existent organization.

It seemed the opening of the second day was an attempt to move away from the power of the chiefs to recognition of the power of the tribal or traditional alliances. Patrick Mahdabee of Ontario made a motion that the Confederacy of Chiefs be called the Confederacy of Nations. The motion was passed though an earlier motion to change the designation of Chief and Council to "aboriginal governments" was defeated.


Chief Sol Sanderson of FSIN then spoke to three motions being put forward by the Chiefs of Saskatchewan. He said there was a need to formalize our political relationships. He cited the political convention recently signed in Saskatchewan and called for a similar convention at the National level. He asked that the Indian Rights Bill be ratified as a post-patriation strategy on the constitution and that Chiefs across Canada implement and apply the Treaty and Aboriginal Rights Principles. He said the incorporation of Indian structures was a major thrust by the Department of Indian Affairs and was counter to the principles of Treaty and Aboriginal Rights. He promised the motions would be put forward in writing later in the assembly.

At any rate the restructure eventually got passed but it was not without its tense moments. The Maritimes and Quebec insisted their region be divided into three with three vice-presidents elected. When the motion was defeated, they walked out of the Assembly claiming that their interests were not being considered. It was near lunch, so some Chiefs urged organizers to go out over lunch and try to talk them back in.

After lunch the Assembly reconvened with some noticeably empty tables. Chief Tom Sampson moved the adoption of the balance of the structure and after a last ditch effort by Bill Wilson of B.C. to get the offices of vice-president abolished altogether, the motion was carried, and the Assembly prepared for the election of a national leader. It was decided by all regions that elections for vice presidents would take place at a later date. Quebec and the Maritimes returned and a motion was swiftly passed giving them three vice presidents for three regions. They declined to vote in the election however.


Bill Badcock was chief electoral officer of the elections. The Assembly decided that the winning candidate would be the one who polled 60 percent plus one of the votes cast, and after the first ballot, the two candidates with the lowest number of votes would be dropped, a second ballot would be cast and another if necessary until a candidate received the required number of votes.

There were six candidates running for president. The favorite seemed to be Dave Ahenakew whose record as leader of the FSI seemed to speak for itself. But when election proceedings began, nobody was sure who would get elected.

The first Candidate to speak was Fred Kelly of Ontario. He began what everyone assumed was his campaign speech calling for a "uniformity of cause". We are going to rise as a nation," he said, "and in the interests of the Nation I hereby revoke my nomination and urge my supporters to support my friend, Dave Ahenakew." This caused a stir in the assembly and it was probably at this point that David Ahenakew received the psychological advantage he needed to put him over the top. As all the remaining candidates spoke, assembly delegates listened intently to their speeches. Ahenakew was the last candidate to speak and there was a note of anticipation amongst the crowd. Ahenakew had a reputation as a fiery speaker in his days as FSI Chief but his delivery was subdued and diplomatic. Finally the moment arrived to cast the vote.

It took about an hour and a half for the first ballot. It was a long wait but finally Bill Badcock appeared at the podium. The vote was announced: 190 Dave Ahenakew, 10 Clive Linklater, 26 Sykes Powderface, 48 Art Manuel, 67 Del Riley. Linklater and Powderface were automatically dropped from the ballot. Then Riley announced he would withdraw from the election. That left Art Manuel and Dave Ahenakew. From the podium Ahenakew asked Manuel if he intended to withdraw. Art Manuel stood at a mic on the he did not intend to withdraw.

Chief Jerry Noochoo and Mrs. Noochoo of Dillon
Chief Jerry Noochoo and Mrs. Noochoo of Dillon listen intently. This was their first Assembly of First Nations

The First Nations Assembly

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Chief Andrew Paddy, Sol Sanderson, Tony Ashdonhonk and Elizabeth Royal Chiefs Andrew Paddy, Sol Sanderson, Tony Ashdonhonk and Elizabeth Royal applaud passage of the proposed structure of the new national assembly

It was late in the afternoon. Another ballot would have to be cast. Delegates started filing out to the polls. Bill Badcock said, "Wait, we'll do it by a stand up vote." A sigh of relief went through the crowd. The vote was taken. Final count: 259 for Dave Ahenakew, 50 for Arthur Manuel.


The Assembly of First Nations had a new leader who was given a standing ovation as he walked to the podium with his wife, Grace. His acceptance speech was quiet and dignified. He vowed to try his best and work hard. "But other than that I make no promises," he said laughing. The crowd ate it up.

That night there was feasting, dancing and singing in Penticton but it was not unreserved. Dave Ahenakews name was known across the country. The fact that he was from Saskatchewan backed by the FSI machine, got him elected but many expressed reservations. Who was Dave Ahenakew, the man? What did he really stand for? Would he represent the needs of all Indian nations or would he be biased in favour of the Treaty position? Who would he hire at the national level?

Most certainly, Ahenakew will be closely watched in the next few months to see who he surrounds himself with in Ottawa. Who he hires and in what positions will say much about the kind of leader he will be in the years ahead. He will have to use all his diplomatic skills to make the new structure work at the national level.

THE MANDATE: Post Patriation Talk Conditions

The final day of the Assembly was spent defining a mandate for the new leader. Post-patriation strategy was defined by a number of resolutions. The First Nations agreed they will not participate in further talks until certain conditions are met. The May 3rd and 4th federal/provincial meeting on "Native issues" in Fredrickton, New Brunswick, is an indicator of the kind of approach Federal and provincial governments will take in future Constitutional talks regarding Treaty and Aboriginal rights. Leaders across the country reported that they had been invited to attend the meeting AS OBSERVERS.

The assembly resolved that Indian attendance at the Fredericton meeting would be conditional: Indian leaders would attend in their own right, they would enjoy full and equal participation in the conference. Indian nations would choose their own representatives. Indians would have the right of consent to matters affecting Indian government jurisdictions. Indians would define the method to arrive at "consent". In the past federal and provincial governments have been guilty of determining "consent" by asking a few Indians what they think as individuals. Indian governing authority and been ignored. The sixth and final condition for Indian attendance at the Fredericton meeting was that it should be clearly understood that the meeting was in no way related to the Constitutional meeting to be called under Section 37 b of the Canadian Constitution.

In the event that the conditions are not met, a motion was passed calling for a meeting at Eel Ground reserve near Fredericton May 3 and 4th.


As for long term post-patriation strategy, the motions put to the floor by Saskatchewan were passed and provide a solid framework for future negotiations.

Implementation of the Treaty and Aboriginal Rights Principles was cited as one of the priorities of the new national leader. Dave Ahenakew said, "We must intensify the implementation of Indian institutions; if we fail to do this our Treaty and Aboriginal rights will be compromised."

It was decided the Confederacy of Nations representatives and vice presidents be put in place July 1, 1982.

Among the other resolutions passed was condemnation of the British threat of military action in the Falkland Islands. "...the wishes of the Falkland Island inhabitants should be the determining factor in the

The First Nations Assembly

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Dave Ahenakew resolution of this dispute." read the final line of the resolution.

Two or three years ago, a resolution such as this would have been laughed at, but the events of the past few years have forced Indian Nations to look seriously at the basis for their nationhood.

As Senator John B. Tootoosis always says, "If you're going to be a Nation then act like a Nation!" The Falkland Islands resolution is an indicator of the Indian nations' future attention to the world arena, and real action as a Nation in the world community.

So after three full days of meeting the Assembly was adjourned. That evening at the banquet, Dave Ahenakew was sworn in as the new leader of the Assembly of First Nations. Again there was more dancing, singing and festivity late into the night.

The Assembly of First Nations in Penticton was history in the making. A new political order was born. What the First Nations do to make it work will depend, not only on the quality of the elected leadership, but on the willingness of each nation to make it work.

Chief Gary Potts of the Bear Island Lake Temagami Anishnabe in Ontario said, "Our only basis for equality is that we are all aboriginal people. We are setting up a representative body of the indigenous nations of this country. We must rise above our own little pockets of self interest to make it work."

Senator William Meawasige of Serpent River, Ontario, and Senator John B. Tootoosis of Poundmaker's, Saskatchewan, have over 130 years of Indian political experience between them. Senator Weawasige, 83, and Senator Tootoosis, 82, were founding members of the North American Indian Brotherhood in 1947. The NIB became the National Indian Brotherhood in 1970. In Penticton, B.C., April 2, 1982, the NIB became the Assembly of First Nations. Senator Meawasige and Senator Tootoosis are holding a picture of the 1947 founders of our first national Indian government. Senator William Meawasige and Senator John B. Tootoosis