Atleo needs to go back to the beginning

OttawaCitizen.com – opinion/op-ed
20 July 2012.   Maurice Switzer

During my 30-month tenure as communications director for the Assembly of First Nations, a number of attempts were made to create a better working relationship between the AFN and the then Department of Indian and Northern Affairs.

Then national chief, Phil Fontaine, and INAC minister Jane Stewart shared the notion that beginning the onerous task of dealing with 440 recommendations of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples required establishing a rapport between their respective bureaucracies. There were 100-or-so of us occupying the modest AFN offices behind a shopping mall in downtown Ottawa, and 3,500 Indian Affairs mandarins headquartered in somewhat more lavish surroundings across the river in Hull.

A get-acquainted-with-your-counterpart workshop was hosted by the federal department, and, following a day of generally congenial shoptalk between department heads, we all gathered to share our thoughts in a huge INAC boardroom — about the size of a dozen AFN office cubicles.

The format was simple. Everyone around the table was asked to share what they had learned from their day of hearing how the guys on the other side of the river carried out their role of trying to improve the socio-economic prospects of the citizens of 633 First Nation communities across Canada.

Comments tended to be non-specific and innocuous in nature, until it was the turn of an earnest young woman who was new in her job with INAC’s education unit.

“What I learned today,” she said, “was that you can’t have a real partnership when one partner holds all the purse-strings.”

Aside from that incredibly insightful, if naïve comment, I don’t remember anything else that was said during the entire meeting. It was probably the most honest remark made all day. The AFN contingent grinned in unison, but we strongly suspected that the poor thing may have committed a career-ending faux pas.

Naiveté can be rampant among those who set out on a path to end the injustices facing First Nations in Canada. Every national chief since the position was created in 1982 has taken office believing that he is the one who will finally convince the federal government that Canada cannot be a great country when a million people within its borders endure Third World living conditions.

Shawn A-in-chut Atleo may well be the most articulate person to ever hold the job. Following his third-ballot re-election by chiefs meeting in Toronto this week, his task for the next three years will be to convince First Nations constituents that his carefully crafted speeches are really registering with Canadians, especially the agenda-setters in the Prime Minister’s Office.

The hereditary chief of the Ahousaht people from the West Coast of Vancouver Island has the misfortune of serving as the country’s highest-level First Nations spokesman coincident with the term of arguably the most aboriginal-indifferent federal government in decades.

Atleo’s pre-election address to voting delegates indicated that he had listened and learned during his first term as national chief. He burst onto the national scene by championing education — a motherhood issue — as the new buffalo that would nourish First Nations in a healthier and more prosperous future. But the campaign plan he proposed to the chiefs this past week began where it should have — at the beginning.

“We must act on our treaties and inherent Rights,” he pledged.

His first term in Ottawa has taught the national chief that he is dealing with a government that sees indigenous rights as impediments to work around in the course of framing public policy, rather than part of a foundation on which a successful nation can be built. That is precisely why Canada was the second-last country in the entire world to sign onto the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Stephen Harper’s cabinet is literally being dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st-Century in a global community that is no longer dictated to by a small cadre of Eurocentric states, a community whose population includes more than 400 million indigenous peoples.

Shawn Atleo convinced the chiefs that he understands that a viable future for First Nations can best be achieved when Parliament demonstrates the political will to breathe life into Section 35 of Canada’s Constitution. The Supreme Court of Canada and the United Nations have recognized that First Peoples have the inherent, God-given right to manage their own affairs, and nothing short of that will produce effective results or achieve meaningful change.

Stephen Harper seemed to grasp that concept on June 11, 2008, when he stood before the country to apologize for the infamous residential school system that created so much intergenerational socio-economic havoc for First Nation individuals, families, and communities. He concluded by saying: “There is no place in Canada for the attitudes that inspired the Indian Residential Schools system to ever prevail again.”

The Prime Minister is apparently oblivious to the fact that such attitudes actually seem to fuel federal cabinet policies that sanction systemic discrimination against First Nations. Children attending on-reserve schools receive, on average, $3,500 less funding than other Canadian students. First Nations child welfare agencies receive, on average, 22 per cent less funding to do their important work than similar provincial agencies across the country.

In addition, the re-elected national chief likely better understands that the same treaties that secured the allegiance of 10,000 Indian warriors to successfully repel American invaders in the War of 1812 must be reciprocally honoured by the other treaty signatories — every Canadian citizen. The national chief can help convince corporate Canada and the Harper government that it is in their best interests that First Nations receive their rightful share of natural resource wealth to build their own economies and become self-reliant.

When Sir William Johnson offered the 2,500 leaders of 24 Nations of Great Lakes Indians the Treaty of Niagara Covenant Chain Wampum Belt in July, 1764, he promised that the Crown in what was to become Canada would always provide them with “ … the necessities of life … as long as the world shall last,” and that they “ … shall never sink into poverty.”

It will be Shawn Atleo’s task in the next three years to hold all Canadians to those sacred promises, and to live up to the letter of their own constitutional and court laws — not in the name of entitlement, but in the historic spirit of true partnership.

And there can be no partnership when one partner holds all the purse strings.

Maurice Switzer is a citizen of the Mississaugas of Alderville First Nation.

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