in a bid to boost the politicalfortunes of the Assembly of First Nations, national chief Matthew Coon Come is staking his career on a controversial attempt to institute the direct election of his office.
While many of his detractors say the proposal smacks of a personal power grab, Coon Come, the Quebec Cree who orchestrated a brilliant campaign to stop the $13-billion Great Whale hydroelectric project, believes the idea is more democratic than the current system.
Presently, the national chief is elected by 633 First Nations chiefs from across Canada.
But having the post selected by members of aboriginal communities, Coon Come says, forces governments to deal with a united native government instead of playing hundreds of small, far-flung First Nations against each other.
"Right now, 633 chiefs all speak out as individuals," says Brian Craik, a former adviser to Coon Come who works for the Quebec Crees. "The government tears aboriginal people apart because it has made the rules of the game, and it negotiates on a band-to-band basis."
But the idea has some formidable critics, including some of the AFN's regional vice-chiefs. They say a universally elected AFN leader would be a "super-chief" without enough checks on his or her authority, and that most native people don't know the issues and personalities well enough to vote for a national chief. Then there's the problem of whether chiefs at the local level are willing to give up some of their authority to a Canada-wide native government.
The debate promises to get nasty because the stakes are huge. Some chiefs are already threatening to break up the AFN if the idea moves ahead.
It's more than just a question of who gets to cast a vote. The debate raises the possibility of an aboriginal government paralleling Parliament -- an AFN able to pass laws and sign agreements with other governments.
The idea of changing the voting rules is expected to be on the table at the AFN quarterly chiefs' meeting in May in Vancouver. Coon Come's supporters argue that there are already checks on the national chief's powers. Decisions of the AFN are made by an executive committee made up of the national chief and 10 regional vice-chiefs elected by chiefs in their regions.
The proposal's backers also point out that he would not proceed without going to the grassroots for input on a new vision for the organization, including how to elect its leaders.
The changes would then most likely be voted on in a cross-country referendum of native community members.
But changing the AFN could be Coon Come's greatest challenge since Great Whale. Some chiefs are already readying for an all-out brawl.
"We already have a system in place, and it has been working," says Len Tomah, AFN regional vice-chief for New Brunswick and PEI. Tomah says most native people aren't informed enough to vote for the national chief. "(The chiefs) know the leadership out there, and they are the ones in tune with that."
One of Coon Come's harshest critics is Lawrence Paul, chief of Nova Scotia's Milbrook First Nation and co-chair of the 35-member Atlantic Policy Congress of First Nations Chiefs.
"I think it would give the national chief too much power, because then he could say his authority supercedes that of the chiefs," he says.
"Why would Matthew want that? What power does he think that would give him? Is he on an ego trip?"
Paul, a strong supporter of Phil Fontaine, the defeated incumbent in last year's AFN election, predicts that most chiefs won't agree to change the voting rules, and Atlantic First Nations may even pull out in protest. "It would be the breakup of the AFN, because the chiefs would not support a national chief who has that kind of authority."
But an informal survey of other chiefs found strong support for the idea. "It will be supported. It is inevitable. It is the only way we will go forward," says Stan Beardy, grand chief of the Nishnawbe-Aski Nation, with 49 member First Nations in Northern Ontario.
"If you look at the lack of success we've had in the past decade, I would think it's high time for that change," agrees Stewart Phillip, chief of the Penticton First Nation and president of the 80-member Union of BC Indian Chiefs.
"No group has the right to pre-empt this, to prejudge it. You'd probably get about 98 per cent approval (for the idea among native people). Who would be against it other than the autocratic leaders?"
Some of the idea's most enthusiastic backers come from places where regional chiefs are already directly elected.
In 1998, members of the seven Cree First Nations in Northern Ontario voted for the first time for their grand chief. They elected singer Lawrence Martin. He says the universal vote has mobilized his people.
"There's a huge increase in what people are doing and talking about. People want to be involved in decisions now, not just let the chief decide," says Martin.
"It gives people a better sense of ownership and access. Now there are a whole bunch of people who want to run for grand chief (next time)."
The system is also popular among Quebec Crees, who have directly elected their grand chief for over a decade; Coon Come was the first to be elected this way.
Matthew Mukash, deputy grand chief of the Quebec Crees, says the Cree grand chief doesn't have unrestricted power and must answer to a council of nine Cree chiefs who meet regularly to decide on policies. "You can set limits on what the national chief can do," he says.
For Ontario native elder Fred Plain, who in 1966 helped found the AFN's precursor, the National Indian Brotherhood, the issue is basic democracy. Plain suggests that the regional vice-chiefs should also be directly elected by native community members.
"That's how the prime minister is chosen," says Plain, regional elder of the 134-member Chiefs of Ontario. "Would the people of Canada feel better-represented if only the mayors were to choose the prime minister? I think people have the right to choose who their leader will be."