More than 500 First Nation chiefs, elders and delegates will be taking over Whitehorse’s hotels, motels and even some campgrounds for the annual meeting of the Assembly of First Nations in July.
The annual general assembly will draw aboriginal leaders from across the country to the capital to discuss First Nation rights and the future of aboriginal treaties.
While the meeting is expected to be a time of celebration and collaboration for Canada’s First Nations, the future of the assembly itself will also be a concern.
Last week the AFN said the federal government was cutting its budget by up to 30 per cent starting this year, and that it will directly affect AFN programs and transfers to other organizations like Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami. The AFN itself has already weathered the loss of nearly half its budget even before this latest round was announced, AFN national chief Shawn Atleo told reporters at a press conference on Friday.
“First of all, my first and primary concern is the issue of the impact of these cuts on communities,” said Atleo. “It is my principal responsibility to advocate that decisions taking place in Ottawa don’t impact on communities, and we continue to press for that.”
Atleo said the AFN had already braced for the cuts, but he didn’t know how deep they would be or when they would happen.
“These cuts were already announced in Budget 2012. We didn’t expect it would be as high as 30 per cent,” Atleo said.
“I want to assure the people and the citizens of First Nations communities that our obligation is to support the chiefs and council members. We’re going to have to continue to find ways to keep advocating.”
The cuts may impact the AFN’s ability to lobby effectively for issues like clean drinking water in First Nation communities, but Atleo said he couldn’t yet say which programs would be hurt by the cuts.
Atleo said given the federal government’s behaviour, it’s more important than ever to push for self-government agreements and celebrate successes like the Yukon’s Umbrella Final Agreement, which turns 20 years old this year.
“The theme that has been chosen for this year is our nations, our rights, our futures: empowering our citizens to drive change,” said Atleo.
“It’s a powerful theme … I know it’s a bit wordy, because that’s where the change really happens, when it’s driven by the people,” Atleo said.
Atleo was joined by AFN regional chief Mike Smith, Kwanlin Dun acting chief Jessie Dawson, and Ta’an Kwach’an Council chief Kristina Kane in announcing the general assembly.
“This is also a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for some of us, especially us old chiefs, to tell our stories and celebrate our land claims,” said AFN regional chief Mike Smith.
All four leaders were quick to highlight the successes that many Yukon First Nations have had in settling land claims and in the Together Today for our Children Tomorrow document.
“That was presented to the other Trudeau, Prime Minster Trudeau, 40 years ago,” Atleo said.
“These are milestones. They are tremendous accomplishments. I and the other First Nations stand with Yukon leadership shoulder to shoulder in support to driving forward with fair and full implementation of these agreements, done in a manner that is anchored in the very best of our teachings,” Atleo said.
The general assembly in Whitehorse is expected to generate $1 million in revenue for the territory from the conference in combination with a First Nation trade show that is happening alongside the assembly.
However, housing all 500 delegates will be a significant challenge, said Smith. Many hotels are already booked up for the summer, and have been for months.
“We’re looking at all our options. We’re looking to bed and breakfasts, we’re looking at RVs, we’re looking at camping space at Kwanlin Dun’s facilities,” Smith said.
A spokesperson for Dene National Chief Bill Erasmus confirmed when Yellowknife hosted the general assembly last year, some delegates had to sleep in tents. The N.W.T. contingent plans to do the same in Whitehorse.
The assembly will be co-hosted by the Ta’an Kwach’an Council and the Kwanlin Dun First Nation. It runs July 16 to 18 at the Kwanlin Dun Cultural Centre. As well as the assembly discussions, it will also feature a gala feast and celebration of Yukon First Nations’ history and culture.
Contact Jesse Winter at firstname.lastname@example.org