It is time to move beyond symbolic gestures and words. It is time for action.
Shawn Atleo, who is seeking his second term as National Chief with the Assembly of First Nations, is adamant that it is time to move beyond the words spoken by Stephen Harper in 2008 when he delivered his apology for the government’s role in operating residential schools; that it is time for the government to implement the intent of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which Canada endorsed in 2010; and that it is time for the government to accept the 2007 challenge put forward by the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society and upheld by the federal court in April and examine the support Canada gives to First Nations children.
And Atleo has his sights set on continuing another battle should he be re-elected. C-38, the omnibus bill that is the government’s “attempt to overstep our treaty rights and our constitutionally recognized title rights” by pushing through resource development, won’t be accepted by First Nations quietly.
“I’ve got a dire warning for government: their approach will result in the exact opposite and we will in fact end up with a greater heightened sense of conflict, both on the ground and in the courts,” said Atleo. “First Nations just will not stand for it and my role and responsibility and commitment is to stand firmly with them in that effort.
There is nothing conciliatory about Atleo’s manner, a criticism that has been levied against his style of leadership during his first term as head of the AFN. Atleo has repeatedly said his role is to open doors and “kicking them open if we need to.”
“I think we have every reason and right, even while we try to seek a more respectful nation to nation relationship, that we confront Canada,” he said.
The nine forums, three virtual, that the AFN has undertaken in the past three years as well as the Crown-First Nations Gathering, and visits to Parliament Hill, have all been done in an effort to reach First Nations people both on the reserve and in urban settings, as well as politicians and the general public.
“To continue to broaden the engagement and discussion is really important to our work moving forward,” said Atleo.
Atleo believes the AFN has been successful in getting Canadians to reflect on how First Nations people are treated by the government. He points to questions that were asked by the public when the housing crisis at Attawapiskat First Nation became known as well as the heightened awareness that has been created around missing and murdered Aboriginal girls and women, the poor education funding children on reserve receive, and the fight Canada has put up instead of coming to the table with information on how the federal government funds child welfare on reserves.
“Dialogue is the ultimate objective. To find a reasonable solution is the ultimate objective but not at the expense of our rights,” said Atleo.
He pledges to continue to stand with chiefs as they fight for what is needed in their territories and communities, whether it is for environmental control, better economic opportunities, safe drinking water, food security, adequate housing or safe communities.
“We’ll continue to stand with them, stand with the communities who are taking a strong stand, who are making these sorts of actions. Our role is to support and advocate for that and we will continue to do so in a very firm way and make sure Canada knows that the gap and misunderstanding run deep and the words of the apology, while I think are important, they need to be followed up with real action,” said Atleo.
Presenting a unified front is also important.
“I fully believe that the original vision of the AFN …was of the First Nations truly coming together. If … we can find areas of both common experience… common vision … a greater sense of unity and common purpose because that’s where the real change will occur … First Nations coming together to compel the government to uphold and honour the pure intent of treaty,” said Atleo.
And that intent of treaty is what is upheld in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, he says, noting that it upholds the rights of Indigenous people to make informed decisions and give consent to what happens in their traditional territories and in their lives.
Atleo recalls that four years ago he sat in the House of Commons with his grandmother as Harper apologized to First Nations and Inuit people for the government’s role in operating residential schools. Atleo clearly recalls his grandmother saying, “They’re just beginning to see us.”
Atleo wants to continue building on his grandmother’s words, to continue “the work and the deep aspirations to see real change that I and so many of our leaders share, that we’ve created.”