Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Dean Sayers admits he wasn’t sure he was going to run for national chief. He had been chief of the Batchewana First Nation in Ontario for 17 years. His bid for another term was lost in July, but that created an opportunity to put his name forward to lead the Assembly of First Nations (AFN).
“I was considering other opportunities in my area, in my career, to continue helping out through different lenses, through different positions, but the chiefs kept calling me. And wherever I would go, they would say, ‘You should really run for national chief’,” said Sayers.
So he went to ceremony, consulted with Elders, spoke with his family, and on Oct. 26, less than a week before the official nomination deadline, he declared his intention.
While acknowledging the turmoil the organization has been in during the recent past, embroiled in a public battle over a staff harassment scandal and the ousting of the last elected national chief, Sayers says he has “minimized” that period of time.
He’s been talking to chiefs and they’re attention, he says, is on the recognition of their unextinguished governance systems and their unextinguished jurisdictions.
“That's the focus that I want to bring to light,” said Sayers.
Maintaining and protecting nationhood status is foremost to Sayers’ platform. Nationhood is defined by Sayers as speaking from “our own” language, law, people and spirituality.
“There are unextinguished jurisdictions that we will continue to maintain,” he said.
And instead of focusing outwards, First Nations need to spend time celebrating their achievements.
“Why are we not hearing the First Nations who are asserting fishing jurisdiction and are successful? Why are we not hearing energy jurisdiction challenges being successful by Indigenous people? We’re not spending enough time on putting forward our own champions that are coming from Indigenous communities that are exercising unextinguished jurisdictions and are winning,” he said.
Evolution of the relationship between the AFN and different levels of government is also among Sayers’ priorities. He notes that changing times haven’t resulted in the federal or provincial governments changing “with the speed of their own court processes.”
“I'll support good governance. That's really important. I'll support good governance from all levels of government, so I will work with Canada. I'll work with the provinces. I'll work with Indigenous governments. I'll work towards good governance,” he said.
And that includes building good governance within the AFN itself. Sayers says structural changes are needed in the organization and his focus will be to give attention to the AFN secretariat. The secretariat is the administrative arm of the AFN.
Sayers says he believes the AFN secretariat and the political office of the national chief can become united and operate cooperatively.
“It will come in a strategic plan, (in a) healthy, kind way that we're going to work together to understand how we can make the change necessary. From a united front. And that's strategic. That will happen,” he said.
The AFN created the renewal commission in 2005, and work from the commission is coming forward in a chiefs committee created in 2017 to review the charter.
“I support the work of the charter renewal. I think we do need to, like any organization, we should be reviewing the charter. We should be reviewing the foundational documents,” he said.
But the review stage can’t be continuous, and action will have to be taken, Sayers insists.
While critics of the AFN say it has lost it relevance and is out of touch with grassroots people, Sayers says he has not been hearing that.
He says, like sweetgrass, there is a shiny side and a dark side, and chiefs want to focus on the shiny side. He says chiefs talk about the kindness the AFN can bring to their people. They want to put the past behind them.
“The focus I'm hearing is largely positive vision based. ‘What is the vision? Where are you going to move us, Dean? Where are you going to lead us?’ And that's what I'm hearing,” said Sayers.
He believes the AFN can evolve and be attractive, although that may be a “big shift as far as what the AFN may end up looking like down the road.”
Each nation, treaty group or self-government organization must choose its own path with the AFN. Over his years he’s heard many First Nations talk about leaving the AFN, including his own Batchewana First Nation.
“What I said was, ‘We created it. We should tweak it. We should try to make it work for us. And once we've exhausted all efforts to tweak it and make it work, then we can vacate it,’” Sayers advised.
Alberta nations, as another example, has had no regional chief since 2021 and many Treaty 8 nations in the province don’t want to be involved with the AFN.
Sayers says he’s not in any position to dictate to them. They know what is best for them.
He says there’s been too much from people “around the world” telling First Nations what their religion should be, what their practises should be.
“But that's got us in a lot of trouble. I don't want to do that with Treaty 8, with other Indigenous people across the country. They are separate. They are different nations. They can make their own determinations. They can, as a government, say what they want as far as relationships are concerned,” he said.
And as far as the AFN should be concerned, the organization will “continue to push forward our unextinguished expectations and jurisdictions with our interventions and our engagements with representatives of the Crown and our messages haven't changed,” he said.
What has changed over the years has been the approaches taken from different ideologies about First Nations peoples and their concerns.
Sayers believes Pierre Poilievre, leader of the Conservative Party of Canada, will be “upfront with his expectations” and the positions his government will take if elected to replace the Liberals.
“He’ll play his cards. We'll see his hand. And we'll find a way of making sure that partisan politics is not a part of the implementation of the ever-evolving Canadian-First Nation relationship. We will work to have the honour of the Crown and the honour of our ancestors maintained,” said Sayers.
And the AFN will continue to work hard on an “ever-evolving political strategy to bring light and shine light on the issues, to even Poilievre’s government, as to what even their own courts are telling them that they need themselves to align with.”
He points out that in the past the AFN has made “really good mileage” with some Conservative governments and managed to “move the yardstick.”
Aside from the courts, though, Sayers says First Nations leadership will keep driving their agenda which “I’ll be pushing forward on their behalf.”
Sayers wants to see “wonderful, beautiful people that are living long lives, that are healthy, that are wealthy, that are educated, that have good governance systems.
“Those big pictures down at the end of the road, generations away, what’s going to take us closer to where we want to be and what's the best route to get there?...This is where we need to be moving.”
Windspeaker is owned and operated by the Aboriginal Multi-Media Society of Alberta, an independent, not-for-profit communications organization.
Each year, Windspeaker.com publishes hundreds of free articles focused on Indigenous peoples, their issues and concerns, and the work they are undertaking to build a better future.
If you support objective, mature and balanced coverage of news relevant to Indigenous peoples, please consider supporting our work. Whatever the amount, it helps keep us going.