New leadership for First Nations

TheStar.com – Opinion/Editorial – New leadership for First Nations
July 24, 2009

In an era of scripted conventions, the Assembly of First Nations leadership race was anything but. Shawn Atleo needed eight gruelling ballots over two days before emerging as the AFN’s new national chief.
The youngest leadership candidate at age 42, Atleo cuts an impressive figure on the national stage: a role model for youth who make up more than half of Canada’s native population; an exemplar of higher education (he has a master’s degree) who serves as a university chancellor; and a successful entrepreneur who embodies the benefits of economic development.

That he is also an articulate and empathetic politician augurs well for the 700,000 First Nations people across Canada who look to him for leadership in tackling the daunting challenges ahead.

Atleo has proclaimed an ambitious agenda of moving beyond apologies toward healing, education, resource development, economic growth and building self-government. And he has reached out to those living off-reserve, who now make up the majority. He also mentioned the rights of aboriginal women in his victory speech – at a convention where almost all the delegates were men.

Those themes were echoed by most of the leadership candidates, which suggests widespread recognition that the time for talk has passed. The First Nations are asking for action – from Ottawa and from themselves.

That implies a stronger partnership between our national government and our First Nations. Atleo has campaigned on the need for joint policy analysis, for example, rather than Ottawa making up its own mind and presenting First Nations with a fait accompli.

The track record of the federal Conservative government is, unfortunately, unilateralist. One of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s first actions upon assuming power in 2006 was to kill the Kelowna Accord, a $5 billion deal painstakingly negotiated by the previous Liberal government, the provinces and native groups to raise aboriginals’ standard of living to the level of other Canadians by 2016.

Three years after Kelowna, there are still 42 First Nations without schools and 100 communities that must boil their drinking water.

Now the governing Conservatives have an opportunity to turn the page and engage, seriously, with the AFN leadership. Atleo has shown every sign of being a worthy negotiating partner. The onus is on Ottawa to reciprocate.

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