Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
A vocal critic of the Assembly of First Nations is joining the ranks as special advisor to National Chief RoseAnne Archibald.
Russ Diabo, an Ontario-based Indigenous policy analyst and member of the Mohawk Nation at Kahnawà:ke, says a “short conversation” with Archibald following the July Special Chiefs Assembly in Vancouver resulted in him coming on board.
Diabo will advise Archibald in sovereignty, jurisdiction and treaty rights. He says his focus will be on how the federal policy of self-government, as proposed by the Trudeau government, differs from self-determination, which is an international right for Indigenous peoples.
He points out that Archibald represents First Nations that have modern day and numbered treaties, and those who are at recognition tables with the federal government.
“It’s usually the establishment government policy positions that are reflected a lot. Not the ones who don’t agree and have an interpretation of inherent and treaty rights that aren’t being respected by the Trudeau government,” said Diabo. “I guess I’m giving voice to that perspective.”
Diabo also expects to be advising Archibald on restructuring the AFN in relation to its relationship with the federal government. He says the AFN has not been delivering in its role of supporting the chiefs.
“AFN is supposed to give critical analysis, but when the previous national chief was in place, basically since the Trudeau government came into power, I didn’t see any critical analysis coming out of AFN to the community chiefs,” he said.
Cozying up to the government in power has been a criticism leveled against national chiefs. Most recently, Perry Bellegarde (2014-2021) was criticized of being too supportive of Justin Trudeau, while Bellegarde’s predecessor, Shawn Atleo (2009-2014), ended up resigning amidst claims that he was giving too much support to Stephen Harper’s First Nations education bill.
When Diabo ran for national chief in 2018, his platform included making changes to the AFN organization, which he felt wasn’t accountable to the grassroots. He wanted to decentralize the organization and make it more representative.
He still feels that way, but he admits that, for the foreseeable future, any criticisms he has of the AFN will be voiced through internal channels. And he’s okay with that.
Diabo says he has no qualms about taking on this role. He says he was influenced by the treatment Archibald received from the AFN executive council.
In June, not even a year after Archibald had been elected as the AFN’s first woman national chief, she was suspended by the AFN’s executive committee for alleged breaches of confidentiality, amongst other charges. She had to fight to attend the July Special Chiefs Assembly meeting. Chiefs voted to lift her suspension on the first day of the three-day assembly.
“I don’t like what (the executive) did to her to try and remove her. I think it was unfair. I understand why, because I know the AFN system, the old boys. I’m familiar with them…I’ve been there roughly since the ‘80s. I’ve seen what’s gone on,” said Diabo.
Before working as a as a special projects coordinator for the AFN in the mid-1980s, Diabo worked at the National Indian Brotherhood, the precursor to the AFN, in the parliamentary liaison unit.
Diabo also has history with Archibald. He met her in 1989 when she was a student and part of a protest and hunger strike at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ont. The group was protesting proposed changes by the Mulroney government to a First Nations post secondary student assistance program. Although he was not a student at the time, Diabo ended up being a spokesperson for the group when it took the protest to Ottawa.
“I know her as a fighter. It’s not like I’m going in and I don’t know who National Chief Archibald is. I know her,” said Diabo.
Diabo contends that chiefs and First Nations are at a critical time.
“I think we’re at a historical period now where we’re seeing the end of the Indian Act,” he said.
Because of that, he says, the AFN has an even more important role to play in ensuring that bands make informed decisions on how they’re going to move ahead.
Diabo says that while he remains critical of the Trudeau government, he also recognizes that no other government will likely be as supportive of changes in working with Indigenous peoples as this Liberal government.
“If we don’t focus on our internal capacity, sooner or later there’s going to be a change in government. Their spending priorities and everything are going to change. Could be the next election. Could be the one after that. It’s going to happen. And are we going to be ready to exercise self-determination on the ground? Not if we don’t actively work on it,” said Diabo.
Diabo will be reporting directly to Archibald.
It will be up to Archibald, he says, to weigh the opinions she gets from various advisors and then make decisions.
Diabo will be attending the Special Chiefs Assembly in Ottawa next week in his new position.
Diabo’s appointment has been met with criticism. At least one chief has called him out for accepting the position after he had “publicly belittled” chiefs.
A brief point, counterpoint was set off on Twitter by Archibald’s posted announcement of Diabo’s hire.
“So NC has hired an advisor that has openly attacked FNs&Chiefs for their choices on Governance. Someone who openly criticized leadership while never providing one solution, who used terms like “Indian Act Chiefs” to undermine our legitimacy&responsibility to our Nations…#way2go,” wrote Chief Scott McLeod of Nipissing First Nation.
Diabo responded with “Chief McLeod blocked me awhile ago. He didn’t like the #Truthbombs I was dropping!”
The thread of the conversation continued for a few posts after that.
“I’m definitely critical of the AFN, the way it is now. There’s no question,” said Diabo. “But it’s there. You can’t ignore it…so…you work at changing them and coming up with an alternative,” said Diabo.
Local Journalism Initiative Reporters are supported by a financial contribution made by the Government of Canada.