The Commons: Shawn Atleo at the fork in the road

'We have arrived at a moment unlike any other,' AFN chief says

CP/Sean Kilpatrick

“We have arrived at a moment unlike any other in the history of our peoples,” ventured Shawn A-in-chut Atleo, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations.

And yet, here we are again.

“Generations of our leaders have delivered the same message to successive federal governments for over a century,” he explained, a few moments later. “From the battle against the destructive federal government white paper back in 1969 to the struggles to win section 35 in the Constitution in ’80, to the Charlottetown debates in the 90s, to our efforts to make effective the recommendations of the royal commission 16 years ago, we have never wavered. Our voices have always been clear. Continuing attempts to undermine our resolve, to divide our people, have and always will fail. Today our work in preparation for the meeting with the prime minister on January 11, 2013, stands on the shoulders of decades indigenous leadership.”

Mr. Atleo, the public face of an assembly of some 600 communities, was flanked on both sides by a regional chief. Around him, in the metaphorical sense, loomed a protest movement of marches, flash mobs, blockades and hashtags—a thousand different expressions of dissatisfaction. Seated at the front of the National Press Theatre, the 45-year-old father of two—he turns 46 next week—wore a black vest over a black long-sleeve shirt, his glasses perched on the end of his noise, a small black moustache and goatee framing his mouth. He leaned forward slightly on his elbows, his arms crossed in front of him.

He offered to summarize the results of two days of discussion with other chiefs in preparation for tomorrow’s meeting with the government.

“The demands of our people of the First Nations is the need for fundamental transformation in our relationship with the government of Canada, now,” he declared, emphasizing that last word. “That we need real remedies and real change for our people, now. And we action, in particular for our most vulnerable citizens.”

That’s it. Only merely that so many wrongs be righted.

Mr. Atleo deferred to the man to his left, Perry Bellegarde, chief of the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations, and the woman to his right, Jody Wilson-Raybould, Regional Chief of the BC Assembly of First Nations, to “expand very briefly on each” of these demands. What followed was an expansive review of concerns: treaty implementation and enforcement, housing, unemployment, poverty, the development of natural resources and sharing the wealth, the federal funding framework, missing and murdered aboriginal women, human rights, environmental protection, the legislative process, the budget implementation acts and the duty to consult, the Indian Act and the need for a new process toward something better.

With that, the floor was opened to questions.

The first issue raised then was the case of a journalist who had been ordered to leave the Attawapiskat reserve earlier this week. Did Mr. Atleo consider that “appropriate?”

With the question asked, the floor was turned back over to Mr. Atleo. In beginning his remarks, he acknowledged the presence of the president of the Native Women’s Association of Canada. “And I do so,” he said, “in part to pick up on not only what we might feel is appropriate or not…”

What followed was not an answer to the question asked, but an emphatic response.

“Is it appropriate that First Nations rank around 67th on the UN human development index when Canada ranks in the top seven? Is it appropriate that when Amnesty International released a report that said that there’s a grave human rights crisis amongst First Nations in Canada … is that appropriate? In 2011, when Sheila Fraser said that after 10 years of audits and over 30 audits specifically on Indian and Northern Affairs, that conditions were getting worse, is that appropriate?”

He leaned forward and jabbed at the table with his right index finger and seemed to stare directly at the reporter who had asked the question.

“Around the date when that report was released in December, I attended with a family…”

He paused, seeming to choke up. Camera clicks filled in the four seconds of silence.

“Who… we went to the morgue… to identify the body of their 16-year-old daughter. Who was not just a life from a single family. This is now, not only over 600 in a formal sense, but those that provide leadership and support for the murdered and missing indigeonous women of this country suggest that the number is over 2,000. The question is, is that appropriate?” he asked, louder now, jabbing more dramatically at the table.

“This is what our people are saying. That poverty is killing our people. That the history of colonalization and unilateral action on the part of governments will stop now. The movement that is Idle No More is standing up for the waters, for the rivers. They’re saying that the unilateral actions that are taking place under C-45 and C-38 are not appropriate. We have a pattern in this country of blaming and finger pointing. All of us have collected, you and I, and the Prime Minister and First Nations have inherited an Indian Act a hundred years old that oversteps the treaty rights and relationship that the chief just spoke about and we have yet to find a way to resolve these issues with Canada as Chief Jody has been talking about. So the time for that sort of finger-blaming and assassination of characters based on a deeply flawed process when auditor general Sheila Fraser—it’s important for the international media here to understand, Canada’s auditor general said to the government that there are accountability problems with the federal government’s relationship with First Nations. There is no policy to support education. Mainstream Canadians have over six percent increases on an annual basis on education and in health. Our people, for 16 years, have been under a two percent cap. We said we would be at a tipping point with the growth of our population exploding, over half under the age of 25. That tipping point is now.

“We have arrived at the fork in the road. It’s got one of two choices. The suggested easy road that people suggest, the tinkering with the Indian Act and the overstepping of treaty rights and the ignoring of the plight of First Nations. Well, you cannot what is happening with Idle No More. And all of us are gripped by what’s happening on Victoria Island with those hunger strikers. As I sit here, I am deeply concerned about not only tomorrow, but I’m deeply concerned about next week and the week after that and about the relationship between First Nations in Canada.

“The road that we must take is a difficult one indeed. It’s to accept that no longer can we only ask a single question about a single community and the state of affairs of their audit and their finances, but we’ve got to dig deep and say we’re not going to allow this supposed complexity to stop us from transforming the lives of our people in this country as well as bringing a sense of real reconciliation between First Nations and Canadians. I know you asked one single question, but you can see that your question relates to the broad relationship. That’s—why—the—call—for—fundamental—transformation is now.”

Within this moment, here was a moment unto itself.

With Mr. Atleo finished, the reporter tried again. The response involved treaty rights, colonialism and the “broad relationship challenges” between First Nations and other Canadians.

It is all so much.

And short answers are apparently difficult to formulate, even in response to the question of whether tomorrow’s meeting will actually occur.

“The only thing I’m absolutely convinced of,” Mr. Atleo said when asked about that, “is that we’re gathered here in January 29 at five minutes to three…”

Presumably he meant January 10.

“… talking about a national and international movement of Idle No More and hunger strikers.”

So here we are. The greater questions are merely of life, death, money, history, democracy and rights. (With now the added bonus of a discussion about the role of the governor general in a parliamentary democracy.) Nearer the end of this meeting, and quick succession, Mr. Atleo described this moment as a “tipping point,” a “fork in the road” and a “moment of reckoning.” “There is no going back to where we’ve come from before this moment,” he said.

Time being what it is, this is indisputably true, but the moment cries out for something to grasp. And as Mr. Atleo and his delegation attempted to leave, the news conference brought to an end after some 50 minutes with untold questions left unasked, reporters shouted out requests, including a plea for a specific demand.

“This is something that the chiefs are discussing,” Mr. Atleo said. “Broadly, we need every single one of our communities to have a school.”

That would be a start.

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