Shawn Atleo is optimistic that a majority Conservative government will mean long-range planning to tackle issues that face First Nations.
“Now it’s about us getting back to business,” said Atleo, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations.
“We want to confirm what the prime minister committed to us in his letter back in December, to have a First Nations-Crown gathering.”
Also outlined in the letter were commitments from Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Cabinet to address inequities in the education system.
“While there are no guarantees in politics… they do have a four-year mandate and perhaps it means we can sit down again and establish a work plan with this government, with the prime minister and work with the opposition to ensure we have a work plan that the whole Parliament can support to address the issues, especially the four priorities we outlined during our ‘First Nations Count’ campaign,” said Atleo.
Atleo stated those priorities as “transform(ing) the relationship between First Nations and all Canadians and to move away from the Indian Act, based on our rights, jurisdiction and treaties, to educate our youth, build our economies, strengthen our governments and create safe and secure communities for our people to live and work.”
Atleo admitted that it took the First Nations’ campaign time to ramp up and time for candidates to discuss the issues.
“It’s been a real challenge to have First Nations issues be seen as being an important national matter,” said Atleo. “When the campaign finally came into its final stages, you started hearing all the parties start to spend time with First Nations, as well as speak about First Nations issues. But my overall assessment … was a frustration with not registering early in the election, [but] I do feel we made some headway as the election went along getting our issues out there.”
Atleo is hopeful that with the priority placed on Aboriginal issues by the New Democratic Party, now the Official Opposition with 102 seats, the needs of First Nations, Metis and Inuit people can move forward with more strength.
Atleo also noted that participation by Aboriginal people, whether running for office, voting, raising issues or engaging party leaders, was at an all-time high.
“As we move along, it’s interesting to understand about the First Nations participation overall in the electoral process,” said Atleo.
In Atlantic Canada, some First Nations communities turned out to the polls at a higher than 60 per cent participation rate. Other First Nations across the country chose not to vote. There were 60 ridings, said Atleo, that the growing First Nations’ population could have had an impact. However, he pointed out, First Nations don’t vote as a block as evidenced by the fact that Aboriginal candidates ran for four of the five parties that took seats in the House of Commons.
A record-setting 30-plus First Nations, Inuit and Métis candidates sought seats in the 41st Parliament, including in a northern Saskatchewan riding where all four candidates were Aboriginal.
In Desnethé-Missinippi-Churchill River, Conservative MP Rob Clarke, who is Cree, was returned to Ottawa in a close challenge against former Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nation head and NDP candidate Lawrence Joseph. Clarke took 48 per cent of the popular vote with Joseph earning 44 per cent.
Leona Aglukkaq, an Inuk in the riding of Nunavut, who held a Cabinet post, was also victorious. Winning re-election in Manitoba ridings were Métis Conservative members Rod Bruinooge (Winnipeg South) and Shelly Glover (Saint Boniface).
New to Ottawa are Innu leader Peter Penashue, who won for the Conservatives in the Labrador riding, and two NDP representatives, Cree leader Romeo Saganash in Abitibi-Baie-James-Nunavik-Eeyou, in northern Quebec, and Jonathan Genest-Jourdain, an Innu in the Quebec riding of Manicouagan.
“It’s not only those seven MPs,” said Atleo. “We’ve got to reach out to them and all their Parliamentary colleagues now. It’s no different than what we were doing up until the writ was dropped.”