First Nations chief Atleo predicts action this summer

OTTAWA – National Chief Shawn Atleo predicts action from Canada’s First Nations this summer – and is urging Prime Minister Stephen Harper to show leadership in his relationship with aboriginal people.

“We’ve seen action pretty much every summer, every year,” the Assembly of First Nations chief said in an interview.

“I, in the last 20 years in my work, have found myself marching in the streets, challenging the governments and corporations in the courts – we’re going to need to continue that.”

Atleo said National Aboriginal Day, Friday, is about raising awareness and celebrating a shared heritage with all Canadians.

He said he expects some action in the form or protests or blockades across Canada this summer. One activist group has dubbed it “Sovereignty Summer.”

“Anything is possible if we don’t choose the hard road of getting the work done,” he said.

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But since a high-profile meeting between aboriginal leadership, ministers and Harper last January, there has been little change in the federal government’s treatment of aboriginal people, he said.

And it’s up to Harper to show leadership – particularly in the implementation of treaties with First Nations.

“We’re still sitting on, in my view, tremendous potential. It still requires the prime minister to provide the kind of leadership required. It can’t just be left up to department officials. It can’t be left up to one department,” said Atleo, sitting in his downtown Ottawa office, decorated with aboriginal art, sculptures and a framed photo of his late grandmother Elsie.

“The prime minister though needs to lead this. It requires the prime minister to send political instructions that the treaties will be implemented jointly with First Nations.”

Atleo said a recognition of the treaties signed with the Crown is important because they impact all facets of aboriginal life – education, justice, child welfare.

“The treaties existed before Canada was even formed, and Canada is a successor state,” he said.

Despite the tension, Atleo says work is being done, little by little.

Since January, he said two senior oversight committees have been formed to negotiate with First Nations, one on comprehensive claims and the other on treaties.

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And he uses Yukon, where the AFN is holding its annual general assembly on July 16, as an example of successful aboriginal self-government.

But Atleo said the government needs to include First Nations as part of the discussions into $600 billion in resource development.

“First Nations have already been demonstrating that if it’s pipelines or major resource development that they will have a say,” he said.

“Whether it’s through the courts or sometimes on the ground through blockades or direct action, that has been an unfortunate part of the pattern for decades now. And it doesn’t have to be this way.”

In the meantime, Atleo says he will keep pressing the government on issues such as public inquiry into murdered and missing aboriginal women. He said he looks forward to a visit from James Anaya. UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, who will “hold the mirror” up to the country.

First Nations groups are marching on Parliament Hill as part of National Aboriginal Day. NDP Leader Tom Mulcair said he’s talked to hundreds of First Nations residents across the country and the frustration “is palpable,” especially among young people.

“Stephen Harper is still turning a deaf ear on these important issues. He’s promised to act, he has never delivered on those promises and people are just looking for other ways to express that frustration,” said Mulcair.

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“I’m quite concerned that it will be a hot summer in the native file across Canada, in the aboriginal file. Mr. Harper’s going to have only himself to blame.”

In a statement, Harper said the government has made important progress in the past year on priorities such as land claims, education, safe drinking water, health, economic development, and job training.

“While our Government has made unprecedented investments that will help improve Aboriginal peoples’ lives, it is also important today to recognize that much work still needs to be done,” said Harper.

“I look forward to working closely with Aboriginal leaders in the coming year to achieve progress on shared priorities in order to improve the long-term prosperity of Aboriginal peoples and all Canadians.”

Atleo says he’s been visited by Mulcair, Liberal leader Justin Trudeau and most recently Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt, the first federal minister to attend a meeting of all parties of residential school settlement agreement.

“It was a welcome development,” said Atleo.

He said with increased awareness about aboriginal history will have an impact on outcomes.

“The truth is being told about the real history. And absolutely, the statistics remain dire. The poverty, the social ills, the stories of abuse – physical and sexual – in the residential schools. I also find hope and optimism, because wherever there’s oppression, there’s coming out of oppression,” he said.

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“While at the same time I share the sense of frustration about the pace of progress that we’re not moving as quickly as we should. But I feel that there’s a growing national awareness about the need to move more boldly now.”

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