Talking First Nations policy with the experts in Winnipeg

National Chief Shawn Atleo is a smooth performer—but his policy answers are abstract

Even with the Jets out of the playoffs, it’s been fine to be in Winnipeg the past couple of days. Good coffee and muffins down at the Mondragon; the striking architecture of the innovative Manitoba Hydro Place building out my hotel window.

Photo by Marianne Helm for Maclean's Magazine

But my official reason for being here was yesterday evening’s CPAC “In Conversation with Maclean’s” panel discussion, at the always impressive Winnipeg Art Gallery, on the theme “First Nations in Canada: Is there a way forward.”

Along with our Paul Wells and CPAC moderator Peter Van Dusen, the panel was loaded with insight: National Chief Shawn Atleo of the Assembly of First Nations, Manny Jules, chief commissioner of the First Nations Tax Commission, and Charlene Lafreniere, a city councillor from Thompson, Man.

If you didn’t catch the two-hour show and are interested, CPAC will be rebroadcasting today at 3 p.m. eastern time, 2 p.m. central and noon on the West Coast. What can you expect to catch? From my catbird seat, I was intrigued by the respectful but smoldering dispute between Atleo and Jules. Atleo’s AFN opposes Jules’s argument that reserve communities must, in order to drive their own economic development, gain direct control of their property from Ottawa, and that private ownership of that land should be made possible for First Nations communities that want to go that route. The government has promised reforms to allow something along those lines, and this is shaping up as a volatile issue. From audience last night, one Aboriginal woman protested angrily that Jules’s concept is foreign to First Nations, but he makes a powerful case.

Coming from my beat on Parliament Hill, I’m too used to hearing Aboriginal affairs debates that seem detached from reality. Last night, Lafreniere provided a welcome antidote to that tendency. She repeatedly brought the discussion back to the circumstances of Thompson, where her work as a municipal politician involves her in pragmatic efforts to promote education and economic opportunity. While she’s not what you’d call easygoing—she accused the media of “racism” in what she sees as undue emphasis on reporting about band-council corruption on reserves—there was an informed optimism in her answers.

As for the national chief, I’d rate Atleo the smoothest performer on the WAG stage. Still, I wonder how many viewers would share the tinge of frustration that underlies my admiration for his way with words. “The way forward is to value each other,” the National Chief said. Who would argue? The fundamental task, he repeatedly stressed in various ways, is to “reset” the relationship between First Nations and the federal government. But when I pressed him a couple of times for concrete precision on policy, I found his answers flowed ever toward the abstract.

I’ll be interested to hear how it all sounded to CPAC’s viewers.