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Noel Starblanket, two-time national chief of the National Indian Brotherhood, said it’s time for the Assembly of First Nations to change. (GoFundMe) Noel Starblanket still remembers the meeting in Ottawa in 1980 at the Skyline Hotel, which laid part of the groundwork for the creation of the Assembly of First Nations (AFN).

At the time, the National Indian Brotherhood (NIB) was preparing to transform into the AFN, changing the organization from one comprising representatives from regional groups to one made up of First Nations chiefs.

"It was very difficult," Starblanket said. "You had the old guard, who didn’t want to change, [and] you had the young leaders who said it’s time to turn this into the national chiefs organization to reflect our people, to reflect the women, to reflect the young people’s needs and desires."

The movement toward the establishment of AFN began during the first national all-chiefs meeting in Montreal in 1978, and would culminate in 1982 during a meeting in Penticton, B.C., which elected David Ahenakew as the first AFN national chief.

As it heads into its election for national chief in Vancouver on Wednesday, the AFN stands at a crossroads, said Starblanket. Almost four decades later, he insists it has become disconnected from the people it was created to represent, and that it needs a fundamental restructuring.

Starblanket said the AFN executive, from the national chief to the regional chiefs, spend more time with the federal government than they do with the communities they represent.

"Those executives, they have become self-important. They just think about themselves and their political agenda," said Starblanket. "They don’t think about the needs of the people at the First Nation level. They need to change that." Some want voting changes

​Patrick Madahbee, a former Anishinabek Grand Council chief, retired this year after more than four decades in First Nations politics. Patrick Madahbee, former Anishinabek Nation grand council chief, says the AFN leadership should be elected by the people. (CBC) Madahbee, who was a 27-year-old grand council chief at the 1980 Skyline Hotel meeting, said it’s time for the AFN to modernize and change the way the leadership is selected.

"All our citizens should be choosing their leadership at every level in order to empower our people," he said. "Whether that will happen in the near future is the question. I don’t think it will happen that quickly."

Rolland Pangowish, who worked as a senior official at AFN for about 15 years under four different national chiefs, said he joined the organization to make a difference. But over time, Pangowish said he has seen the AFN become a prisoner of the federal government’s funding and policy priorities.

"It is very skewed in the government’s favour," Pangowish said. "They manage the negotiations and set the rules."

He said that during his time at the AFN, internal work to chart new paths and models often fell victim to backroom deals between the national chief and Ottawa, which reflected the priorities of whoever occupied 24 Sussex at the time. Prime Minister Joe Clark, right, chats with Noel Starblanket, left, then-president of the NIB, in the backyard at 24 Sussex Drive in 1979. (The Canadian Press) The AFN is no longer an advocacy organization, he said. Instead, it is "stagnating" as a "policy consultation mechanism" for Ottawa.

Pangowish left the AFN in 2003, as//HAVING BEEN director of the treaty and lands unit. When he returned home to Wikwemikong Unceded Indian Reserve in Ontario, he was surprised people no longer viewed the organization as their champion.

"There was more fear of what the AFN was going to do than a feeling it was representing the people," he said. "The […]

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